Every day, thousands of papers in various research fields are published. Some of them receive lots of attention, while others remain unnoticed. Simultaneously, thousands of studies are not even submitted to journals because the results are insignificant or the authors think the work does not add sufficient new knowledge to their research field. In these joint interviews by Insectes Sociaux and Myrmecological News, Bert Hölldobler and Robert E. Page Jr. share some interesting insight about their own research and why some studies did not result in papers. Here, you will read the interview with Dr. Robert Page. Also, check out the corresponding interview with Dr. Bert Hölldobler!
IS: Dr. Page, as you look back on (and are still proceeding with) a fantastic career in social insect research, roughly how many papers have you published so far?
RP: I have published about 250 papers so far, including reviews and book chapters.
IS: Which of your papers received the most widespread attention? Did you expect this?
RP: The honey bee genome sequence paper in Nature in 2006 is by far the most cited, but I was one of a million authors, and it is basically a resource paper. I expected it to be the most cited. Next is the Cell paper I published with Martin Beye in 2003. I also expected it to be cited a lot because it is probably the most important paper I’ve been a part of. It also represents a long hard struggle in my lab and Martin’s spanning about 7 years, and a question I actually started working on in 1980. My 4thmost cited paper is one I published in Experimental Gerontology with Christine Peng in 2001. It was a review article on a subject I knew little about but was picked up and has been cited 300 times. I never would have figured that.
IS: Have you published any papers that you think received insufficient attention from the scientific community? If so, can you give us an example?
RP: I have several, but I know why they didn’t receive the attention I thought they should. I tend to undersell my work. I don’t go for high impact journals, just because they are high impact. I try to publish in the journal that is appropriate for the audience I am trying to reach. Often that is an audience of specialists. I also tend to publish places that let me present all of the data and methods. In the long run, the ability to repeat someone else’s work is the hallmark of science, and you need to provide your data. And, hypotheses and current trends in what is perceived as exciting science come and go, but bad data stand forever. So, I try to present all of the data as best I can so they can stand whether my ideas do or not.
IS: What do you think is the main reason well-designed studies go unnoticed by the scientific community?
RP: Science today is like a collection of infomercials. If you don’t package it right and sell it in the right venue, it goes unnoticed. I guess I am an old fogey about this, but I believe it.
IS: Have you completed studies of which you have not published the results even though you consider them relevant? To how many projects or datasets does this apply over your career, approximately?
RP: Yes of course. I don’t believe in “do an experiment, write a paper.” The objective of science in my mind is to contribute to an understanding of something. Sometimes experimental results obfuscate our understanding, not improve it. Usually, more experimentation will fit the pieces together and lead to an understanding, but sometimes you don’t get back to it, so it sits in the filing cabinet, or in an electronic file on your computer desktop. I have many incomplete studies sitting there.
IS: Do your unpublished datasets have anything in common? Why did you not publish them? Was it ever due to a lack of statistical significance?
RP: As I said in the previous question, it is usually because I can’t figure out how the results fit into a bigger understanding.
IS: Does the field of social insect research generally suffer from gaps due to data not being published?
RP: No, I think too much is published too soon. We would be better off with fewer papers that actually resolve something.
IS: What do you think is the general trend over time concerning the amount of unpublished data? Stable, decreasing, increasing?
RP: I really don’t know about other people. I think mine increased over time because as I got older and had more of a focus on specific questions that I wanted to answer, I became more demanding that each paper contributed to an understanding.
IS: Would you be willing to share any or all of these unpublished data so that others could learn from them or profit in any other way? If so, what might be a good platform for this? Do you think that, for example, a database could be set up for such data?
RP: That is a difficult question. My idea about bad data lasting forever actually came from Darwin. Often there are reasons data don’t get published, often it is a lack of confidence in them. Something peculiar in the methods, or an environmental anomaly when the experiment was conducted. I don’t think any data should be shared on a public platform that isn’t completely reliable and carefully screened. If you do that, you should write the paper.