I was chatting with a friend in a monthly book group. A rare event happened this month: everybody in the group really liked the book. It turns out that that most of the books they read are not well-liked by the group. How does that happen? Well, this is a discriminating group, and there are lot of books on the market; many books aren’t that good.
We speculated about why so many non-good books are sold by publishers. The answer is embedded within the question: those books sell.
Let me overgeneralize and claim that there are two kinds of novels: First, there are those that were brought into the world because the author had a creative vision and really wanted to write the book. Second, there are novels that are written with the purpose of selling and making money. Of course, some visionary works of art also sell well, but many bestselling books aren’t great works of art. (No venn diagram should be required.) Some amazingly great novels don’t sell well, and weren’t created to be sold easily in the marketplace.
Most novels were never intended for greatness. The authors and the publishers know this, but have designed them to be enjoyed and to have the potential to sell well. When someone is shopping for a certain kind of book, then they’ll be able to buy that kind of book. Need a zombie farce? A spy thriller? A late-20s light-hearted romance? I have no problem with people writing and selling books that aren’t great. Books can be a commodity to be manufactured and sold, just like sandwiches or clothing. A book that is designed to sell fits easily fits into a predetermined category, and then does its best to conform to the expectations the category, to deliver to the consumer what was expected.
I think a similar phenomenon happens when we do experiments and write scientific papers.
First, some research happens because the investigators are passionately interested in the science and have a deeply pressing creative urge to solve problems and learn new things.
On the other hand, some research is designed to be sold on the scientific marketplace.
To advance in our careers, we need to sell our science well. The best way to do this, arguably, is to not aspire to do great science. We can sell science by taking the well trod path on theoretical bandwagon, instead of blazing our own paths.
If you want a guarantee that your science will sell well, you need to build your research around questions and theories that are hot at a given moment. If you do a good set of experiments on trendy topic, then you should be able to position your paper well in a well-regarded journal. If you do this a dozen times, then your scientific career is well on its way.
On the other hand, you could choose a topic that you are passionately interested in. You might think that this is an important set of questions that has the potential to be groundbreaking, but you don’t know if other people will feel the same way. You might be choosing to produce research that doesn’t test a theory-of-the-moment, but you think will be of long-term use to researchers in the field for many years to come. However, these kinds of papers might not sell well to high-profile journals.
Just like a novelist attempting to write a great novel instead of one that will sell well, if you are truly attempting to do great science, there is no guarantee that your science will sell. Just like there are all kinds of would-be-great novelists, there are some would-be-great scientists who are not pursuing established theories but are going off in more unexplored directions.
Of course, some science created for the marketplace is also great science, too. But the secrets to creating science that sells, are very different than the secrets to doing great science.
After all, most papers in Science and Nature are easily forgettable, just like the paperbacks for sale at your local chain bookstore.
Update: For the record, y’all, I’m not claiming that I am above doing science to be sold. That’s mostly what I do. I’m just owning that fact. There’s more on this in the comments.