This post was inspired by the following line in Lord of the Rings read to my kids while on “vacation” at my cabin in BC. “’Follow what may, great deeds are not lessened in worth,’ said Legolas. Great deed was riding the Paths of the Dead, and great it shall remain, though none in Gondor be left to sing of it in the days to come.”
If a tree falls in the woods, and no one is there to hear it, does it make it sound? NO.
I have always maintained that – no matter the research you did and its quality and results – it never existed if you don’t publish it. Unpublished research only enriches (or deriches, I suppose) you and the people that did it – it has no influence outside that limited sphere. Given that no one outside of the researchers know the results, it ceases to exist as research – in the sense that research is conducted for the benefit not just of the researchers that did it but for the wider world. So – always publish your research – even if you don’t like the results, even if you move on to other jobs, even if you lose interest. If you don’t publish it, it is a waste of taxpayer dollars and en(de)riches no one but yourself.
Exceptions exist, of course. If you know that the experiment or research was BAD – that is, all the fish died or the field assistant mixed up the data irretrievably or all the camera traps failed or whatever – then you obviously don’t want to publish it. But, importantly, the decision to NOT publish something should never be a function of the actual RESULTS of the study. If the study was conducted well, then the results are the results and should be published regardless of what the actual result is. If you predicted a positive correlation between x and y and you felt like you did the study right BEFORE you saw the results, then you need to publish it regardless of whether the correlation is positive or negative or non-existent. Stated another way, your perception of the quality of the research should not change AFTER you see the outcome of the research – otherwise what is the point of conducting the research in the first place.
If you don’t publish your results, you run the risk of a confirmation bias (only publishing results if the conform to prior expectations), a file-drawer problem, wasting taxpayer money, wasting future researcher’s time and resources, and so on.
If a tree falls in the woods, and people are there to hear it – but then they all die afterward and leave no descendants, did it make a sound? YES.
Many people are disappointed when they publish a study but it ends up in a “lower-tier” journal after they first tried top-tier journals where they thought it belonged; or they publish the paper and few people cite it. These are reasonable feelings for a researcher to have, of course. You poured your heart and soul – and blood and sweat and tears – and money and time and resources – into your study; and the results were cool and graphs are engaging and you did an awesome job writing it up and so on. If it doesn’t shake the foundations of your field, or at least cause them to quiver, then you feel let down; like your research wasn’t that good after all. Critically, however, what matters – once your work is published – is how YOU feel about it. Are you proud of it? If so, then external validation is nice, but not important in the end.
My daughter has a t-shirt that reads “Don’t let the number of likes define your art.” – to which I like to jokingly add “unless you get a lot of likes.” The sentiment of the original saying is what I am talking about above, of course; if you like your research, then it is good! The tongue-in-cheek addition, however, also acknowledges that perhaps you don’t see the worth of your own work – but that others do. [See my post on "Should I be Proud of my H-index?"]This can happen if you have spent so much time and endless revising and reanalyzing on a study that you are simply deathly sick of it – and just want to be done with it so you can move on to good research in your future (or some non-research endeavor).
So, be proud of your research if others like it – or even if only you like it. But, regardless, you need to publish it first.