Monday, June 18, 2007

Prolific theorists

How do they do it? No, really. How can some theorists be so prolific? I know they're not constrained by little things like having to get experiments to work, but surely it takes a certain amount of intellectual effort and creativity (or at least, supervision of students and postdocs, or correspondence with collaborators at other institutions) to produce a decent paper. At a little before the midpoint of the year, I can think of two CM theorists who have already produced, between the two of them, 23 preprints on the arxiv. That's something like one paper every 2.5 weeks for each of these people. Wow.

18 comments:

hypnose said...

Believe or not, it is more difficult to produce a paper that will generate citations in theory than in experiment. What matters at the end of the day is the citations, not the number of papers. 200 papers which have 1000 citations combined is not going to impress anyone. The most prolific theorist, Ed Witten, has about 250 papers in his entire carer. He has in excess of 50000 citations though.

Incoherent Ponderer said...

i agree with Doug. It takes me a lot longer than 2.5 weeks per paper just to write a paper, never mind to do the experiment.

I have been writing this PRB followup to previously published Science for over a year now. Ok, so there is a bit of procrastination and other papers take priority, but still - there is no way I could write it up in 2.5 weeks, even after all analysis is complete.

What's also surprising is that some theorists tend to publish a LOT, while others can get by with some fairly small (for theorists) number of papers - like 2-3 papers a year.

hypnose said...

IP, a hardworking theorist publishes 2-3 papers per year without any grad students, postdocs and collaborations. It is the norm. He has many other duties like teaching, committees etc.

The theorists who are publishing on the order of dozens are not junior people. He is talking about well known people like Allan MacDonald who has more than a dozen grad students and postdocs plus another dozen collaborators in europe and USA. These are the top people in their field.

People who do not have grad students and postdocs do not publish much(e.g. Duncan Haldane) however his contributions to CMT is manifold.

I have to emphasize again what matters is not the number of papers but the h-number. It is not a merit to publish papers just to fill journal pages. The purpose IS to get citations.

Doug Natelson said...

Hypnose is right that citations are what really count, of course, and obviously having a big group of grad students and postdocs results in more publications. Still, the intellectual effort of really contributing to that many papers seems like it would have to be very high. Even with very good students, papers rarely need only token advisor input....

musafir said...

I think I agree that the number of papers may not mean much - there seems to be some strategy to it for eg, people can break results up into many parts and then publish a paper on each. Also, if a group already has a setup established and ready, they can use it like a toy to produce a myriad of results. However, in certain cases, having many graduate students may not help much. For eg the field of numerical relativity when it can take months for calculations to be done on supercomputers, let alone, be verified for accuracy.

smm said...

yes, we all know the shear number doesn't account for much...that is, once we sit down and rationalize. but our first reaction is usually positive and something along the lines of, "holy shit that's a lot of papers!" which i think is the sentiment of doug's post.

Doug Natelson said...

One of these people averages 25 ISI-ranked publications per year. The other, according to an online CV, had eight simultaneous submissions to PRL at the beginning of this year. When do they actually find the time to do the science?

hypnose said...

Doug, your comments are quite naive. If I didn't know, I would think you are an undergrad student.

Senior scientists don't do science. They become managers after the age of 50. Every academic knows this. This should not be news to you. People like MacDonald or Sarma are not sitting and writing two dozen papers per year themselves. Like I pointed out in my previous post, they are managing more than a dozen researchers plus they have the same number of collaborations outside.

If each of these collaborations and students come up with one paper per year(and they do), that makes two dozen papers. There is nothing surprising about this.

However, these people are not highly-cited researchers. None of them is in the national academies for instance because they are publishing just to publish without any regard for the quality of the work thus they do not have any groundbreaking discovery.

Doug Natelson said...

Hypnose - I'm not naive, and I can, in fact, do basic math. My point is that getting a paper out in my lab requires a fair bit of input from me, at the analysis, writing, and revision stages, and I think that's appropriate. I don't have enough hours in the day to put that much effort into 20 papers a year. Therefore, these highly prolific people are either much more efficient than I am, or they are less actively involved in all of those papers than I am in mine.

Doug Natelson said...

One last point.... If you really think that all senior researchers don't play an active role scientifically anymore (that is, you think they just raise money and manage, and then sign off on whatever their students do), then you're wrong.

hypnose said...

Doug, I am not an experimentalist so I will not be able to comment on how paper writing process goes in that front.

You are right actually. They have little input in many of their papers thus you should be a fairly autonomous and independent person if you are going to join their group as a grad student. It is essentially "sink or swim" attitude hence it is no coincidence they have large number of postdocs in their groups(i.e. fairly mature researchers). If you did not write a complete paper by yourself in your life before, you will get drowned in a group like that.

It is very different from working with an assistant professor. I graduated from a large group like the ones I mentioned so I pretty much know how things work out. PI comes with the idea and the execution and paper writing is up to you. Once(and if) you finish the final draft, he starts editing.

Also, please provide an example or proof when you claim something like the one in your last post. Most of your claims are hollow. There are a few people who still write papers in their mid 50's like Duncan Haldane but these people do not have a research group. Those people you are talking about act the way I described.

musafir said...

"The other, according to an online CV, had eight simultaneous submissions to PRL at the beginning of this year. When do they actually find the time to do the science?"

Doug: It is possible. I know of ppl in the numerical relativity community who managed to do that because they have an established code to generate result after result for them, and then publish a PRL on each.

"Senior scientists don't do science. They become managers after the age of 50. Every academic knows this. This should not be news to you. People like MacDonald or Sarma are not sitting and writing two dozen papers per year themselves. Like I pointed out in my previous post, they are managing more than a dozen researchers plus they have the same number of collaborations outside."

hypnose: I oh-so-agree with this, even though I'm not in the condensed matter community per se, but personally in a theoretical research group with 2 senior scientists who are very well-established in their respective subfields. It took me some time to readjust my expectations after joining their group because before starting grad school, I used to think that senior scientists in the US are people who get their hands dirty together with their students.

"They have little input in many of their papers thus you should be a fairly autonomous and independent person if you are going to join their group as a grad student. It is essentially "sink or swim" attitude hence it is no coincidence they have large number of postdocs in their groups(i.e. fairly mature researchers). If you did not write a complete paper by yourself in your life before, you will get drowned in a group like that."

hypnose: Right on again. Well, at least I have some proof from personal experience.

"It is very different from working with an assistant professor. I graduated from a large group like the ones I mentioned so I pretty much know how things work out. PI comes with the idea and the execution and paper writing is up to you. Once(and if) you finish the final draft, he starts editing."

hypnose: Yep, I have also tried working with an assistant professor. The style is indeed different - he is more involved himself in the actual calculations. However, in the paper-writing front, my senior scientist advisor does provide the rough outline of the paper - it is up to the student and postdoc to fill in the details.

"However, these people are not highly-cited researchers. None of them is in the national academies for instance because they are publishing just to publish without any regard for the quality of the work thus they do not have any groundbreaking discovery."

hypnose: Exceptions to this do exist in a fairly large amount in fields other than condensed matter. The philosophy that my advisor tries to inculcate in us is, in some ways a good thing, rather contrary to the above - we try to do new science and verify our claims to great accuracy. The bad thing about it is, ppl can get disillusioned when the road gets too long and the grand final goal seems unreachable.

Doug Natelson said...

Hypnose - Ok, much as I don't like naming names, here are three examples of relatively senior people that are still actively contributing (as far as I can tell) to the science that gets done in their own groups, and I'll mix experimentalists and theorists: Bert Halperin, Jim Eisenstein, and Leonid Glazman.

I'll leave it here. I do find it ironic, though, that you accuse me of making hollow claims while making sweeping generalizations ("Senior scientists don't do science."). Ahh well. I suppose I should consider it almost flattering that anyone finds me naive, since most people who actually know me think I'm pretty cynical.

Anonymous said...

Hypnose, you are a little more opinionated than warranted.

I think there are plenty of well established faculty who would be happy with the career path of prolific publishers like MacDonald and Sarma. It's true that their papers are not as well cited as Phil Anderson, but if we were to go down that path then not many people will have a leg to stand on.

As a student or postdoc, there is something to be said for a boss who publishes regularly. The persons who keep waiting for the miracle year are most likely going to end up as postal workers.

I agree with Doug that there are many people above 50 who are scientifically active. I have seen three types of "elder" scientists - (a) who have a big group and end up being scientific managers. I think this is more common among experimentalists and in chemistry.
(b) those who leave the mainstream of research and work on problems that are not "hot".
(c) those who maintain a fairly small group in a mainstream field and are really involved in the nuts and bolts of the research.

I think that there are actually more people in (c) than (a).

hypnose said...

Doug, I was just trying to explain how so called "prolific" publishers manage to publish seemingly incredible number of papers. There is no magic or mystery about it. I got my degree in a large group like that so I know their ways.

The examples you give are not prolific publishers. Glazman and Halperin do not have a research group so they are not managers(even if they would like to perhaps). Even then, they act like editors. I happen to know a postdoc who has papers with Halperin and the story is not significantly different from what I wrote here. Senior person comes up with the idea and postdoc writes up the draft then he edits.
That is pretty much it. Did you ever wonder why these senior people have no first-author papers?
That is the reason...

Anonymous, I never said MacDonald is a bad or unsuccessful person. I happen to know him personally and like him a lot. If you are a mature and autonomous researcher who can stand on his own feet(i.e. have good paper writing skills), he is the perfect person to work with.

You need good paper writing skills anyway. When you are on your own, who is gonna write your papers? If you are relying on senior people to write your papers all the time, you will be kaput sooner or later.

Anonymous said...

Hm. I've also occasionally wondered at such prolific writers. I (a CM theoretician) associated it with experimentalists, though ;-)

Anonymous said...

If you are a professor in one of the *good* schools, or if your research group is well-known, you will get the cream of the foreign students. Even your Chinese students will write papers on their own that needs little correction. And if you have Russians and Indians, then you probably will not need any corrections.

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