One potential negative of being an academic - especially for someone as impatient as I am - is the time lag of publication. It can easily take two years from the first submission of a manuscript to when that manuscript appears in print (in some high-profile journals and faster-paced fields the whole process can be shorter, but I'll focus on psychology here). What I want to argue is that, although publication lag has a whole host of negative consequences, it can nevertheless be a pathway to better work.
As a way to shortcut the long journal submission process, I've made a habit of submitting much of my research to the Cognitive Science Society. This is a great way to get findings out quickly: short papers are due in February, reviewed by April, and presented in July. The downside is that publications are not archival. Unlike in Computer Science - where conference publications are the standard - for purposes of jobs, promotion, etc., psychology papers must be published in a peer-reviewed journal. So I often write up some more complete version of my CogSci papers as substantially longer journal articles.
I recently tried to estimate the lag in this process. In 2007, 2008, and 2009 I submitted a number of papers to CogSci:
- A 2007 piece on segmentation was published with three more experiments in 2010,
- A 2008 piece on numbers and verbal interference was finally published in 2012,
- A 2008 piece on rule learning was published with more simulations in 2011,
- A 2009 piece on the Human Speechome Project is just now getting written up,
- A 2009 piece on discourse continuity evolved into a 2013 paper, and
- A 2009 piece on pragmatics became both a 2012 paper and one that is now under review.
By slowing down the broader dissemination of ideas, this lag clearly has negative consequences. Although conference proceedings are citable, journal papers stand a much better chance of having a long-term impact. A nicely typeset article in a good journal suggests solid research; when the article is published, there are often press-releases and content alerts that go out; and journal papers are indexed in PubMed and other catalogs as part of the archival scholarly literature. Yet that journal article is often several years out of date before we read it.
If I look at the list of articles above none of them were published, or even submitted, with only minor changes from their CogSci versions. Instead, I made substantial revisions and additions prior to submitting them for the first time. Sometimes I replaced entire experiments - in some cases all of the experiments - because I had learned how to design them better or had created a better stimulus set. I was and still am happy with the initial CogSci papers. But taking the time to write them up, get reviews, prepare a talk, and present gave me space to become dissatisfied. It gave me time to up my standards and to think that I could do better.
Peer review plays a part in this process, but the feedback I receive is not always critical in my revisions. In some case I make changes to please reviewers. But my most successful revisions are the ones in which I find a shared concern with the reviewers: a flaw that I recognize and that I am unsatisfied with. Then when I fix this flaw to my own satisfaction, reviewers are also satisfied. It takes time for me to get this kind of perspective.
That's why I think the lag itself is valuable, even independent of feedback from the review process. The slow speed of scientific publication may actually be a form of being tied to the mast. As frustrating as it is to wait 2 - 3 months for reviews, the process actually enforces the dictum of setting a draft aside, a practice that is endorsed by writing coaches from Stephen King to the Harvard Writing Center.* And without those enforced breaks, I doubt that I would have the discipline to keep from pressing "publish" and sending my (perhaps interesting but often half-baked) work out into the world.
* Of course, there are some parts of the publication process that don't provide a benefit, e.g. the lag from proofs until the journal actually decides to print the darn thing. This lag could be eliminated if we gave up on paper journals. While many journals now use e-pub before print, my experience is that this practice leads to huge messes in Google Scholar and elsewhere when the same paper is cited to two different years.