Richard Primack was wrong right today

UPDATE: Richard Primack has commented on this post, and his response is just great. I thank him very much for being so open for discussion, specially as I used some strong wording in order to make a case for doing science that do not depend on impact factors. If he incorporates his own research examples on how to use cheap, curiosity driven research for doing great science in his next talks, I am sure they will be awesome. Read his comment here.

I really like Richard’s research and he has been very kind to me as a researcher in the past sharing data openly for my own research, so I was very excited for the opportunity to see him in person at Gfö meeting. However, I think he was wrong today. He gave a plenary talk addressed mainly to young students about “how to publish in high impact factor (IF) journals”. While its true that the actual market rewards having papers in high IF journals, having this as a goal for young researchers is perpetuating a bad situation.

Among his advice he proposed try to use “NEW” (often expensive) tools and topics, focusing in iconic species and exciting regions, or avoid things like “showing the same pattern for this other species”. Then, he mentioned some areas that are exciting for him (some of them where indeed exciting for me too). But all in all, he suggested that to succeed you should study whatever Fancy Journals think its exciting.

But I think he failed to motivate young students. He didn’t mention that you need solid evidence and good questions (and some good questions are very old), he didn’t said that simple old tools (which require low budged) can be powerful if the question is good, or that we also need to know what common species in common places do. All in all, He never said you should investigate what is exciting for you. That you should do good science, and no matter where its published.

I was not the only one to feel uneasy, and the questions round made things worse. When asked if the 80% of scientists who are rejected annually from his Journal are wrong in thinking his research is good enough, he simply nodded and said that people tend to think his/her research is cooler than it is. But I am quite certain acceptance rates are not low because of the bad quality of the those 80%! When asked about starting monitoring programs, he agreed they are not sexy enough if are not question driven. But he must have said they are needed! Specially taking into account that Richard himself used Thoureau’s curiosity driven observations in his research. I also asked who is supposed to do the non-exciting science that we need to replicate findings and to give generality to our hypothesis, or descriptive work that is the basis to ask more complex questions. Then he gave a mixed response of yes, this is important, but you won’t publish in fancy journals that way. Which I interpret “others should do it”.

His advise may be good for short term career success, but detrimental to science. Nobody (nor even editors) should decide what is exciting for you. I felt he was giving old school advice to new generation scientists.


8 thoughts on “Richard Primack was wrong right today

  1. I completely agree with you. We are terrible in ecology at getting rid of old theory (see Jeremy Fox’s ideas on Zombie ideas in ecology –, so some of the most useful papers can test old theory in a new way.

    We also have to be careful we don’t jump on a bandwagon simply to publish some high impact papers. Just because a particular topic is currently popular doesn’t make it a good reason to publish on the subject.

  2. thank you very much for this post and for your question after the talk. I totally agree. I think his mixed response to your question clearly showed what was wrong about his talk as you already pointed out. “Please do the boring stuff so that my PhDs can write a meta-analysis.” I was quite pissed after the talk, but in the end there was a big upside in it. since many people disagreed with the talk it enabled many interesting discussions about what is important or exciting research and why Richard Primack was wrong. Of course along with many jokes about using drones for assisted migration of great pandas to the savannah ;-)

  3. I totally agree with you, even without knowing the talk. It is really incredible that impact factors and quantity at the end could count more than the quality of the work itself. There are so many great researchers that carefully think before writing and make “old-fashioned” experiments that with great simplicity give a solid answer. It’s not the method that makes good research, it is the thinking behind it. I am happy to hear that there was a lively discussion about this and it would be great to know more about it. Perhaps this tendency to “fancy science” can be inversed and driven back to quality again?

    • For me the most important lesson on why go for quality was inspired for a couple of advisors how really show me “the pride” of doing good work. I think this feeling of being satisfied with what you have done is powerful motor.

  4. I want to thank Bartomeus. I have only given this talk a few times, and I now agree that it does not have the correct message for young researchers. And this talk does not even reflect my own research style. For my whole career I have carried out research that is based mainly on my own enthusiasm for research and curiosity about how natural systems function. When I sit down to write articles, I write about what excites me. Recently, my students and colleagues have been pursuing an extremely simple and inexpensive method of investigating the leaf out requirements of trees using dormant twigs. We have been having so much fun with this new method, and we excited by all of the new things that we have been learning. This approach to research was not reflected in my talk. In future versions of my talk, I will include the need for a sense of excitement and curiosity. This enthusiasm and inquisitiveness comes through more naturally for me when I talk about my own research on using Thoreau’s old records to look for the modern impacts of climate change. I will incorporate your ideas above and my own approach to research into an improved version of my talk.

    Thanks to Bartomeus and others for this valuable feedback.

    • Thank you very much for your constructive comment. I really appreciate this open discussion and I believe that this examples based on your own research will make a very good cases for young researchers.

      I updated the post accordingly!

  5. Although most people agree that content and quality of an article are much more important than the impact factor of the journal where it was published, university rankings and assessments of scientists unfortunately focus on the latter. In my opinion the somehow absurd fixation on papers in high impact journals as the only proof of “best” science distract the scientific community, and especially young scientists, from prioritizing the underlying idea, the approach, etc. of studies whether or not they first appear “sexy” enough for a high impact journal. There are many examples for highly influential papers that have been published in journals which are, at first glance, of minor importance. Unfortunately it is much easier for university administration people and selection committees for a professorship to just count impact points instead of carefully reading an article and forming an opinion on it. However, whatever opinion one may have about publication strategy and research issues, Richard’s talk initiated a discussion which I believe is important and overdue for the entire scientific community. It is us who have to change the way how papers are perceived. We then may give again priority to what we are working on rather than on publication strategy. In any case, I was impressed how well Richard handled Bartomeus’ criticism.


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