In the days before e-mail, researchers and students would send postcards to authors of scientific papers requesting copies, called reprints. As a young academic, I would look forward to the daily mail delivery to see if I received any requests. If I did, I would give the postcard and reprint to a department staff person who would send it out. Today this is all done electronically by researchers themselves. But in my experience, it can be difficult to get copies of published papers through electronic requests. This makes me wonder, why don’t more researchers share their work?
Others Need to See Your Work
The scientific endeavor is about advancing knowledge, and each of us strive to conduct research that is relevant to our disciplines. We prepare our research reports and if we are lucky, publish them in rigorously peer-reviewed outlets. But our job is not complete once the work is published. To advance knowledge our papers need to be seen and read. Hopefully, our work will have impact on other researchers, as reflected in their citing our work in theirs. Citation provides a basis for future work and illustrates how new work was built on old work. Sharing work, therefore, is not just a courtesy to other researchers. It is an integral part of the scientific process.
As a new academic, I read a chapter by the preeminent historian of psychology, Edwin Boring that discussed why some scientists become famous. He noted that many big discoveries were made by more than one person, but only one person is known for each one. His conclusion is that the person whose name we recognize today did the best job in promoting the work. This idea resonated with me, and I have always put effort into making my work visible and available. It is not only how you contribute to your discipline, it is how you build your personal brand as a scientist. It is how you get your work recognized and cited.
Why Don’t More Researchers Share Their Work?
In the old days, sharing work had some cost for reprints, envelopes, and postage. Today electronic tools make sharing free and easy. Pdfs of articles can be e-mailed to those who request it, but there is an even easier way. You can set up a ResearchGate profile, and the system will automatically update it with your new publications. When people request copies of a paper you can share it with a few mouse clicks. There is an option for you to get e-mail notices each time someone requests your work, so you do not have to manually check.
Although electronic tools make it easier to make requests, people are less likely to answer those requests than in the old reprint days. For example, I have found that most people with ResearchGate profiles do not answer requests. My yield is well under 50%. For me it is a minor annoyance that I now have to log into my university online library to download a pdf from there, but for those colleagues who do not have access, including those in many developing countries and those not at research universities, it is a problem. There is a worldwide open science initiative that blames academic publishers and their pay walls for lack of access to scientific research, but much of the blame for lack of access falls on those of us who do not make our work available upon request.
Science is not just about doing research or even publishing research. It is about impact as scientists influence one another through their findings and ideas. But to have impact others need to see your work. So why don’t more researchers share their work when that is the best way to get it seen and ultimately have impact.
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