The Academic Observer: The Orphan Paper

I have been developing a concept that I cannot find in the literature on the sociology or psychology of science. However, when I describe the concept to any active researcher over (say) 45, it is immediately recognized and sometimes seems to arouse a powerful, if nostalgic, emotional experience. Let me try it out on you here, although you younger readers may need to inquire about its reality with your elders. As you guessed, I am calling the concept “the orphan paper.”

When we begin our careers, we seek publications, and most any publication will do. Yes, the idea might have been slight, but we mined it through three experiments and showed that, slight or not, there was evidence for it. Our publishing careers were born when some journal editor accepted our pithy nugget, and off we went. More papers follow in this vein: fine, workmanlike (or workwomanlike) research, but nothing too special or earthshaking.

As time went by, we longed for something more dramatic, a really important contribution. Finally, after reflection and effort, we happen upon what we hope will be that bigger idea, the one that will lead to a really important publication that will propel us to fame and fortune (albeit within our small field; no use being grandiose here).

We take this precious idea, the one we like so much, and we conduct some experiments. Voila! The data work out! It seems to be right! We love this idea like we love our children (even if we don’t have any — it’s a metaphor). We write up our paper, now with great hope. This is going to be IT, the Big Time, the Paper That Will Put our Names on the Map.

Yes, okay, we do have our usual problems with the reviewers and the editors. They just don’t see the light that shines so brightly in our own eyes, but that’s just like them, isn’t it? Great new ideas are always resisted (see Darwin, 1859). Still, after a few submissions (albeit maybe to two journals), several revisions, and the usual long letters replying to the reviewers’ and editors’ carping criticisms, the paper is accepted. Great!

Now we patiently wait. Finally, the copyedited manuscript arrives and we plow through it — it still seems so good! Some weeks later, the page proofs arrive and we polish those off; now the paper looks pretty and it seems better than ever. The weeks go by, and yet we wait. Won’t the paper ever come out?

Yes, it does; it’s out! The journal is falling into the hands of those several thousand (or maybe a couple of hundred) people in our field. We can almost feel their eyes reading our paper, admiring it, marveling at our work, beginning their own projects based on it, and citing it in their work (those golden citations, yes!). The scene is glorious in our mind’s eye.

Except… except… it never happens. This paper, the one for which you had such hopes, the Big One, is received like all your others. No one actually notices it (or at least no more than usual, which isn’t much). You think, “Well, okay, it has only been six months, and these things do take time.” But then it has been a year, then two. Finally, after five years or so, you realize “it” is not going to happen.

Here’s the analogy: you sent your child (your precious paper) out into the world, and no one adopted it. It became an orphan. Like having children, this phenomenon tends to occur in younger adults.

All right, I admit the analogy is not perfect; the author does not actually have to die to have an orphan paper (this is quite fortunate, given that everyone I know over 45 seems to have one, or sometimes a whole orphanage). Also, the paper does not feel lost and alone — you (the parent) do. No analogy is perfect. Still, the paper for which you had such high hopes just sits there in the literature, biding its time until infinity, waiting to be noticed.

An interesting exercise for you graduate students reading this column is to query your professors (again, especially those over 45 or so) about whether they have an orphan paper and if they will identify it. If so, a second exercise is to read this paper and decide (a) was the poor person deranged to think he or she would have a hit with this paper or (b) did “the field” make a mistake by ignoring it? In the latter case, the thought might run through your head: Might this paper represent a vein to be mined by an intrepid student? (Sorry to mix metaphors there. You may translate that to “Might this paper represent a child ready for adoption?”.) Who knows? Maybe the idea/child would have a better fate the second time around and help to establish your own young career.

Do I have an orphan paper? I thought you would never ask. Of course, I do; where do you think this idea came from? It’s Roediger and Tulving, “Exclusion of Learned Material From Recall as a Postretrieval Operation” (Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 1979). This year marks the 30th anniversary of this publishing nonevent. You don’t really need to go read it. Practically no one else has.

Yet there is another type of paper, too, the kind that gives us hope for our orphan papers, hope like Obama has for America. It is the rediscovered paper, the contribution that was ignored in its time but was later revived and considered to be a pioneering piece of research, far ahead of its time. Think of Mendel patiently counting those pea plants in his cross-breeding experiments and publishing his work in 1866 to a group of contemporaries who could not have cared less. Who would have thought that all of Mendelian genetics would later be dated from that obscure paper, one that was cited only three times in the next 35 years? Certainly not Mendel or his contemporaries. (Mendel was long dead by the time his work was rediscovered.)

So for those of you with orphan papers, maybe, just maybe, in 25 or 50 or 100 years someone will rediscover your paper and it will become famous. This represents a cheerful, if totally delusional, notion with which to end my column.

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