on Publish or Perish

Peter Higgs, Nobel Prize recipient for Physics, 2013, says he would never make it in academia today.  It sounds like a call for more careful consideration of the quality of people’s work, rather than the quantity.  That is a real problem in academia, because unlike the world of business, that’s really the only quality indicator we have about someone’s work.  Higgs’ brilliance, enough to win the Nobel prize, clearly is worth something.  So what gives?
On the one hand, yes, there does seem to be a mad rush for more papers, and more valuable (by some metric) papers, and brilliance does not work on a timetable the way we’d all wish it would. On the other hand, NASA’s ADS service for physics journals says that between 1960 and 1996 (his time at Edinburgh) he published 4 papers (1964, 1964, 1966, 1979) wrote one book review (1977), and was co-author on one more paper (1984). The other references are apparently a P.G. Higgs in France who did/does physical chemistry.
Now, I don’t understand Particle Physics as well as Astronomy or Astrophysics, and NASA’s ADS system may not be the right place to look for his work, but it looks like Higgs really didn’t produce much of anything past the first six years of his career at Edinburgh. Higgs’ results certainly look different from Steven Hawking, Kip Thorne, or Francois Englert (the other Nobel Prize winner), who, from the same type of search parameters, show up at least one a year in the publication record all the way back to the early 1960s.  I think it’s fair to say Higgs’ career is fairly unique even for his own time, in an academia that’s been Publish or Perish since World War II.

Now… what exactly should we DO with Higgs, or rather people like him?  His ideas clearly were worthy; they got him a Nobel Prize.  At the same time, he produced (in papers, perhaps not in teaching, mentoring, or service) very little else.  Higgs is right that academia is not really set up to reward someone for one brilliant idea… and while we can’t really expect people to come up with multiple Nobel Prize winning ideas, at the same time I can’t exactly fault the University of Edinburgh for getting wary of a man who produced a brilliant idea, and then, for all I can see from the publication record, basically sat down and said “I’m done”.

Is it ok that we reward one awesomely brilliant thing with effectively a lifetime of money?  Well, it’s a Nobel-Prize-winning idea.  They basically constitute a lifetime achievement award anyway, and we should respect that, and we shouldn’t need to see more stuff as a formality to know they’re a worthwhile person (but that gets back to the “worth” question).  One could even argue that we do that for politicians, movie stars, and sports heros. As long as the University of Edinburgh was ok with “having a man like Higgs on their staff” and not “having brilliant publications from a man like Higgs with their name on it” (and for all we know, they were; Higgs is the one claiming there was friction) I don’t see a problem.

On the other hand, I guess it’s strange to me that a scientist wouldn’t want to continue pushing on this fascinating concept to see where it goes.  And if Higgs did continue pushing, I don’t see why he didn’t publish more about partial results, promising paths, or smaller side effects of his theories.  He would have to be an extreme variant of the school of “I’m not publishing until it’s perfect”.
I don’t think Higgs’ assertion that he wouldn’t make it in academia today, while true, is quite as relevant or troubling as this report makes it out to be.


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