A Presumption Against Graduate Students Publishing

Ralph got a good discussion about this going over on PEA Soup. You should check it out. In the meantime, let’s see what CDers think.

What’s the point of publishing? I say it’s to communicate true and interesting results. People of course have other goals in publishing — e.g. to get noticed, to stimulate conversation, to get tenure, etc.

What’s the point of graduate education? I say it’s at least largely to train people to produce and disseminate true and interesting results. Graduate students are researchers-in-training. People of course have other goals in pursuing graduate education — e.g. to get credentialed, for the love of it, to find a safe place to weather an economic storm, etc.

I say there should be a presumption against graduate students publishing. I suspect that the general point will be relatively uncontroversial. But maybe my reason for accepting it won’t be. [I should note that my reason is clearly related to Ralph’s #3 at the beginning of his post.] Here goes.

People being trained to perform some task are probably not yet proficient in that task. Graduate students are being trained to produce true and interesting results. Therefore they are probably not yet proficient at producing such results. If they’re not proficient at producing true and interesting results, then they probably don’t have any true and interesting results to communicate, in which case they are probably not in a position to achieve the purpose of publishing. And if you’re probably not in a position to achieve the purpose of performing a task, then there is a presumption against you performing that task. So there is a presumption against graduate students publishing.

The presumption is weaker for more advanced graduate students.

The presumption can of course be overturned, at any stage. This is where proper mentoring is important. If your professor, advisor, or one of your committee members, or someone else established in the field says to you, “You should try to publish this — it’s in good enough shape,” then that defeats the presumption. More advanced graduate students who are honest with themselves might even be able to overturn the presumption on their own, if upon careful reflection they think a paper is well-written and makes a genuine contribution. But generally speaking, getting an ‘A’ on a seminar paper or impressing your classmates over beer does not suffice to overturn the presumption.

Mark Schroeder made some excellent points about the educative and practical benefits of going through the peer-review process with journals. That’s a good reason for a graduate student’s mentors to stay closely involved with the student’s work: when appropriate they can encourage her to send the paper off and see what happens. That’s an important part of graduate education. But it doesn’t speak against their being a presumption in the first place. (And Mark might not have meant it that way, either.)

Factors extrinsic to the point of publishing might affect whether it’s rational for you to publish, or whether you all-things-considered ought to publish, even if it doesn’t achieve the point of publishing. And you might reasonably think that you’ll achieve the point, even though you won’t, in which case we wouldn’t blame you. None of that speaks against there being the presumption I’ve argued for.


A Presumption Against Graduate Students Publishing — 7 Comments

  1. I say there should be a presumption in favour of graduate students publishing.

    For most tasks, the best way by far to become proficient is by performing the task. In many cases, and I would argue that producing and disseminating true and interesting results is one of them, true proficiency is possible only through practice.

    Auto mechanic trainees are required to fix cars, surgeons in training are required to perform surgery, and graduate students should be expected to publish.

    In what professions are people considered proficient at tasks they have never performed? Suicide bombers?

  2. That’s an interesting point, Ralph. But I think that’s what research seminars are for: You produce the results and disseminate it to the seminarians.

    If it goes really well, maybe publication will result, most likely with further revision and polishing.

  3. John,

    I agree with much of what you have to say here, but I also think that if you come from a non-elite program you’ll need to do something to overcome that fact and get a job. I don’t know what could do that besides publishing. If you come from an elite program, you can say ‘Well, we were encouraged not to publish’. I’ve seen this before. If hiring committees use this to discount differences in CV’s from applicants from elite and non-elite backgrounds, that is (I think) bad for the profession.

    Grad students should be doing more conferences to build up their professional skills and should be encouraged to try their hand at publishing later in their careers. If their work isn’t good enough, let peer review be the judge of that. Like you, I worry that people will be pushed before their ready into trying to publish. However, the same point could be made for some of us in the first year or so of our post PhD lives and I don’t think anyone is telling freshly minted PhD’s that they shouldn’t try to publish.

  4. That’s like saying that surgeons should only learn surgery by operating on cadavers. Of course they should do that first, but it is not a substitute.

    Would you agree to have a heart transplant done by a doctor who had never done a live one before, and not supervised by someone who had?

    Where are they supposed to learn to do the “further revision and polishing” you speak of?

    Publishing is part of the job graduate students are (presumably) being trained to do. A PhD is presumed to be competent at
    producing and disseminating by publication true and interesting results. That’s a pretty strange presumption to make of someone who has never done it before.

    Of course students require supervision, that’s why they are students. It’s the advisor’s job to make sure they publish acceptable work, just as it is the teaching surgeon’s job to keep the students from killing the patient.

    I’m a computer scientist, and things may be different in philosophy, but when I was in graduate school there was a strong presumption that students would publish work good enough that their advisor would want to be listed as a co-author. Anything short of that was a “Technical Report”. We wrote a lot of TRs but I don’t think anyone ever graduated without refereed publications.

    You knew a student was done when he could publish work his advisor wanted to be a co-author of, but she hadn’t made enough contribution to be entitled to it. Not everyone achieved that.

  5. Thanks again, Ralph.

    There do seem to be some important differences between computer science and philosophy, and so my original remarks are probably best limited to philosophy, maybe more broadly to the humanities.

    Co-authoring is not common in philosophy. There’s no presumption that graduate students will have published. Indeed many star graduates from elite departments — the ones who get the best jobs — often have zero publications when hired.

    I don’t think it’s strange to say that someone is competent to perform a task that they’ve never yet performed, especially when they’ve already been performing very similar tasks well (e.g. producing very good papers in research seminars, for the diss. committee, presenting at conferences, etc.).

  6. Hi Clayton,

    I agree with you about the practical importance of publishing for students from non-elite programs. Thus my other post from yesterday!

    I wouldn’t tell a freshly-minted Ph.D. that they shouldn’t try to publish, because being awarded a Ph.D. should be conclusive evidence that they’re ready, or just about ready, to publish. (Of course, things might be different for some specific paper, rather than in general.)

  7. I think you’re overly simplistic about the purpose of publishing. While it is certainly correct to say that some articles in some journals (and certain journals more so than others) present true and interesting results, this is not (nor should it be) the case for all published articles in all journals. I can think of some excellent articles that do little more than convey a narrative, or present an interesting observation. Graduate students might do well to cut their teeth on less robust projects and become increasingly ambitious over time, particularly if their publishing activities are largely self-motivated.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *