Could conference proceedings mitigate the publishing pressure in the behavioural and social sciences?

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Let’s face it, everything gets counted and performances expressed in numbers – from the arts to sports and even life itself has a price tag attached to it. This “quantificationism” is rarely questioned for assessing students as there are more or less objective criteria for what is an excellent, good, average or poor performance in an exam. Here, knowledge is measured by an authority (or its representatives) testing the student. This shows progress and allows comparisons.
But when it comes to research, where one explores, analyses and scrutinizes data and ideas, the means of quantification can become detrimental. Contrary to grading course work, publishing research results should be done when one can report something substantial, not when an authority demands it.

quantification of everything
Some quantification appears silly and can be detrimental. Thinking and creativity are not easily measurable entities

Indeed, initially scientists would publish when they had news to report. With research becoming an industry (both in the private and public sector) progress reports entered the scene. Worse, a research career far too often depends on the number of papers published (but look out for universities and researchers having signed DORA: 

DORA logo
DORA - Improving how research is assessed

Counting publications was meant to allow comparisons across universities and countries; but generalized too much by applying such a purely quantitative view across research fields. At the time of the Bologna reform many PhD programs in Norway “encouraged” paper-based dissertations and “discouraged” monographs. Collating peer-reviewed papers as dissertation is also common in other countries. 

I am not against the basic idea of having to publish during your PhD. However, the time it takes to publish varies considerably. For instance, peer-reviewed conference proceedings have clear deadlines for both the authors and the reviewers, often resulting in under 6 months from submission to acceptance. Whereas conference proceedings are recognised as important contribution in the STEM community, proceeding papers are rare or are not acknowledged in the behavioural and social sciences. 

Having pursued an interdisciplinary PhD this contradiction in what counts as a publication for the dissertation was not only artificial but also at odds with the original meaning of research article. But worse my peers in the STEM PhD programs had after their yearly main conference a publication out, whereas my peers in the behavioural sciences wouldn’t get any credit for presenting their work at a conference. They, including myself, had to (re-)write it for a particular journal, awaiting peer-review 3-6 months later and revising at least once – which took its time, and then waiting another 3 months or more, before it might get published. And I am slightly wondering whether this contributes to the higher dropout rate in the behavioural and social sciences (around 50%) than reported in the natural sciences and technology (around 68%) (Wollast et al., 2018).
What about preprints? Again, STEM had them early and the behavioural sciences adopted them recently but PhD programs have not followed suit. Only peer-reviewed – most correctly pre-publication peer-reviewed – articles count in your PhD track record. Post-publication reviewing as possible on some preprint servers does not yet count.
Below I compare “traditional” research articles to conference proceedings and preprints. As can be seen from it, conference proceedings balance the speed of publishing with rigorous peer-review. In many other aspects conference proceedings are more alike standard journal research articles than preprints – both when it comes to the copyright issue and findability in research databases. The major drawback of conference proceedings – and only partly mitigated by travel grants – is that at least one of the authors has to present the paper. However, there are initiatives for online conferences or options for researchers to join meetings virtually. This also benefits the environment, as large distance travel by plane are a substantial contribution to a researchers CO2 footprint. 

Feature Full journal research article (FJRA) Conference proceedings article (CPA)
Preprint on public preprint server (PP)
Up to the author(s) Deadline given Up to the author(s)
yes (1-2 rounds) yes (often 1 round) no, commenting possible
Reviewers chosen by editor, can be suggested from conference pool open to all
Rejection rate low to high, depends where submitted very low N/A
duration until acceptance can take over 1 year often within 3 months N/A
publication types original research articles, meta-analyses, reviews, comments, theoretical papers can be restricted to original research articles & theoretical papers original research articles, meta-analyses, reviews, comments, theoretical papers
publication handle DOI some get DOI DOI
costs article processing charge for Open Access conference fee + travel (at least for 1 author) none
Advantage standard, accepted by community predictable timeline, can count as publication fast dissemination, open access by default
Disadvantage slow,
publication bias,
unpredictable timeline
conference cost,
may not count as publication
not peer-reviewed, not accepted by all in the community

Gerit Pfuhl

Professor, NTNU

Researching decision-making, both function and mechanism (also phylogeny and ontogeny), using comparative and computational methods. PhD in cognitive Neuroscience from NTNU