'Still working': Astronomers explain why they don't publish

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The European Southern Observatory found that a surprising number of teams using its Very Large Telescope (pictured) didn’t publish any results.

European Southern Observatory/H. H. Heyer

“The dog ate my homework.” Schoolchildren are famously creative when it comes to offering up excuses. But according to a new survey, astronomers are also good at explaining why they don’t publish, even after being given time on some of the world’s best telescopes.

The European Southern Observatory (ESO) operates some of the world’s largest and most sophisticated telescopes. They cost a lot of money to build and maintain. So Ferdinando Patat, an astronomer at ESO headquarters in Garching, Germany, says he was “quite astonished” when an earlier study on the scientific return of ESO’s Very Large Telescope in Chile showed that up to 50% of teams awarded time never published a peer-reviewed report based on their observations.

Patat wanted to understand why. He and a few ESO scientists scoured publication databases and identified 1278 projects that were awarded time on any of ESO’s telescopes between 2006 and 2013, but which had not published anything by April 2016. They sent the project teams a questionnaire offering them a number of options to explain their lack of output; respondents could give multiple reasons.

They got a surprisingly high number of responses—80%—and the most common one was, perhaps unsurprisingly, “I am still working on the data.” Patat says, “That’s the easiest answer you can give, like when you ask a student why they haven’t submitted their essay on time.” But perhaps they’re not trying to pull a fast one. Patat says other studies have shown an asymptotic curve of publication delay, which takes about 3.5 years to reach 50% of the total number of publications and 10 years to reach 95%.

Beyond that, there was no clear winner in the excuse stakes: Some had published and Patat’s search had missed the paper; others didn’t get the quality or quantity of data they expected; for others, the results were too inconclusive.

The responses that stuck out for Patat were the 10% of researchers who said they didn’t have the resources to process and use the data. “Perhaps the astronomical community is saturated with data and cannot cope with it all,” he says.

The positive spin on the results is that, given time, about 75% of groups will likely get around to publishing eventually. Is that enough? Twenty-five percent of telescope time seemingly wasted seems a lot for a valued observatory to swallow, especially when the highly oversubscribed Hubble Space Telescope has a 90% publication rate.

Patat says you can never get to 100% because it is part of the scientific process that some risky proposals may never produce results. Part of the shortfall he ascribes to the trend throughout science to avoid publishing negative results. “This reflects what may be a growing cultural problem in the community as scientists tend to concentrate on appealing results, especially if they have limited resources, and the need to focus predominantly on projects that promise to increase their visibility,” Patat says. But he also suspects there are some proposals that are not well thought through or are thrown in to show a team is busy. “It’s a perverse system where winning time on its own is seen as important,” he says. Patat says ESO is now reviewing its proposal selection system and encouraging researchers to take more care with their proposals.

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