August 15, 2013

Weekly Language Usage Tips: salami science (least publishable unit) & work or works

Posted in count nouns/mass nouns, least publishable unit, work/works tagged at 6:12 am by dlseltzer

First a clarification.

Last week, I wrote:

Remember, last week I said that publications were the currency of the realm in academia. We don’t want to spend all  of our money in one shot! A common rookie mistake is to put everything in one paper. Why do that when we can develop three or four papers based on what we have learned?

A reader wrote:

Hmmmm…..Have you ever heard of the academic malady called ‘salami publishing,’  or the concept of the ‘least publishable unit’?

Editors have been railing about these phenomena for years;  a typical commentary is this one from the editors of Nature in 2005, found at  Or this from Science in 1981: …  Those of us on the library side of medicine are well aware of the myriad problems with indexing, accessing, evaluating, systematically reviewing, etc., the literature that result from salami publishing and the endless pursuit of the least publishable unit by rookie and experienced researchers alike!

I’d urge you to urge our colleagues to write one good paper rather than multiple repetitive ones!

First, I’d like to get this out of the way: I would never recommend salami publishing! You know me better than that! Salami publishing is the practice of breaking up findings to produce multiple similar articles instead of one complete article, that is, using the least publishable unit to increase the researcher’s publication record. I would always advocate writing ‘one good paper rather than multiple repetitive ones,’ as the reader said.

However, in health services research, we often collect data in a number of ways, through interviews, self-reported surveys, observation, review of medical records, testing interventions, conducting clinical trials, and so forth. We collect data to answer the original research question, but we often collect other data that tells us some other things that are interesting but are not directly pertinent to the original research question. That’s what I was talking about. If we wanted to put all the findings in one article, it would be very convoluted, and it is very possible that the focus of the question we asked in the first place would get lost. It would be considerably stronger to have multiple papers that are not repetitive where each focuses on a separate issue or finding. For the record, don’t get involved with salami science or the least publishable unit, but do thoughtfully and purposely examine your data to see how you can best report it.

By the way, I recommend the articles associated with the links in the reader’s note.

Tip: Work or works

A reader writes:

Further on plural words, I have a doubt regarding the word ‘work’ when used as a noun.

Is ‘works’ the plural of ‘work’? Recently, in a paper, I had written a sentence which read: ‘Some recent works have explored this idea in the context of … [references].’ A reviewer asked me to change “recent works” to “recent work.” Would it be a valid change?

Well, you know how I feel about publishing and trivial changes, that is, if the change isn’t consequential and not actually wrong and doesn’t affect the point you are making, go ahead and make the change, let’s get published. I would count this reviewer’s request in this category.

That being said, there are those that insist it should be ‘recent work,’ and there are those who insist it be ‘recent works.’ I have seen reviewer comments that have asked the writer to change ‘work’ to ‘works,’ so it goes both ways. The trouble is that ‘work’ can be either a mass (uncountable)—There is much work to be done (indefinite quantity of work)—or a countable noun—I’ve got the complete works of Nikos Kazantzakis (I have all of the books that he has written).

So, in the reader’s example, it really could go either way. If the author was referring to a specific set of articles, ‘some recent works’ seems legitimate. However, if the writer was referring to an unspecified quantity of related research, ‘recent work’ seems appropriate.

For some, this is a philosophical question about the nature of science and whether we should be considering the body of work as a whole instead of the separate work of individuals.

Not going there.

I found one style manual that noted that authors should always use ‘work’ as a mass noun in scientific writing, but the manual’s next rule is ‘always write in the passive voice,’ so you can imagine what I think of that.

So is it a valid change? Let’s say it is a correct change, but not making the change is correct, too. I wouldn’t contest it. As I said, let’s get published.


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