Do you think because you write, or write because you think?

I used to believe that the pressure to publish what you did in research was inherently bad. About four years ago or so, I started to change my mind.

I now believe that the more you write, the more you think about the issues, and the more ideas you have. In short, productive researchers do not write a lot because they are brilliant, they are brilliant because they write a lot.

This statement has counterexamples, however. We all know of some researchers who produce papers after papers, all of them toying with the same set of narrow ideas, or all of them misguided. Hence, I will add a constraint. You must write a lot about different things.

But clearly, that is not enough. Many people who write textbooks, for example, happen to write a lot, and they write about different things, yet, they are not automatically brilliant researchers (though, I submit to you that they probably are brilliant individuals). Hence, I will add a final constraint: you must be ambitious and go where nobody has gone before.

So, let me summarize my recipe:

  • write a lot…
  • about different things…
  • and be bold.

My final point for the day: When I say that you must write a lot, I do not mean that you must publish a lot in peer-reviewed journals and conferences. Getting continual and high-quality feedback is essential, but I see no evidence that getting formally reviewed frequently is essential. In fact, it may even prove counterproductive as it may encourage you to become more conservative.

How do you get feedback, if not through peer review? For one thing, you can run experiments: nature will tell you whether you are wrong. For another, informal review of your work by friends or collaborators can be as good or better than formal peer review.

I also think that posting your work on the Web might be a very valid form of publication, especially if you have job security. Sometimes you know that your work is correct. At the very least, you know as well as any reviewer might. Or sometimes, your result might just not warrant the process. Maybe we should all create our own personal journals.

3 thoughts on “Do you think because you write, or write because you think?”

  1. I’ve been recently learning more about the review process for the major scientific journals in my area (business). It really seems that the gatekeepers cannot guarantee that “A-list” journal’s content is actually the best research in a field. There are so many other factors involved in determining whether a paper will be published or not…
    I also think that posting on the web is valid and will be more frequently from now on. In this way, readers (academics and practitioners) will determine what is good research and what is not.

  2. Based on my limited experience, your advice seems to be brilliant. When I write something, I start understanding the topic much better.
    Also I guess teaching/giving formal talks about your findings is helpful too. The catch is that if you give a talk on a half-baked idea, others may just kill it! Writing, it seems, doesn’t have the same problem.

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