WeSalon | Why Do We Publish Papers

11, 2022

Email: zhangchi@westlake.edu.cn
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Undergraduate research: I want papers, more papers!

Graduate research: I want papers, more papers, JACS papers!

Postdoc research: I want HIJ (High Impact Factor Journal) papers!

By now you are probably wondering, who’s this obsessed with publishing papers? Well, if you are a student doing scientific research, especially in chemistry or materials science, there is a silver lining in all of this. This was the mentality of Jiaxing Huang, Chair Professor of Materials at the School of Engineering, Westlake University, before becoming an independent PI.

At Westlake University, we don’t evaluate faculty candidates or graduate applicants just with the number of papers published. But every single scientific discovery is documented in the form of published papers.

We don’t emphasize the number of publications, but that does not mean we should stop reading or publishing papers.

Then why do we publish papers in the first place? Have you ever thought about that question when becoming a PhD student, a postdoc, a research scientist or a PI? Did any of you actually sit down and think about this question?

On the night of November 30, at the WeSalon hosted by the Westlake Graduate Association, Prof. Jiaxing Huang talked about his “first” papers at different stages of his career to the audience. For the first time, the story behind each of those publications was told. Looking back at those papers and where he stands now, “What is the purpose of publishing papers?” he asked.

This is a story full of wits and wisdom. Prof. Huang wishes to remind us that these are the words straight from the horse’s mouth. If his sharing can inspire some to think about this issue, then it’s worth its weight in gold.

My First Undergrad Paper

As an undergrad, I studied chemical physics at the University of Science and Technology of China (USTC). We usually join a research lab by the fifth year for undergraduate thesis project. 1999 was my senior year. At that time, my grades were average, but I thought that doesn’t mean I am what I eat. In order to gain more research experience, I joined a laboratory in advance as a humble research assistant.

In the beginning, I was really prepared to work even as a janitor…something on the lines of washing beakers. Later, the doctoral student who was assigned to supervise me saw my due diligence and let me “hitchhike” into one of his research projects. After he drafted the manuscript, I kept reading it over and over again. I was happy enough that sometimes my tiny inputs were taken. In the end, the fact that he and my mentor were willing to include my name in the author list really made me feel very motivated.

Having your name carved in as a part of scientific history is something that no honors can describe. For the first time in my life, I saw the alphabets of my name appearing in an international journal!

No honor is worth of one that is your own and no prize is more precious than the ones you earn. In 2000, I published the first paper that I can proudly claim as my own. Even till today, I regard this article as my precious. This article was “the first.” – For the first time, I went through the whole process of making a discovery, explaining it, writing a manuscript about it and eventually publishing it. Back in the day, all manuscripts were mailed, and the reviewers’ comments were sent back by fax. Every time the mailroom told us about a new fax, I jumped, hopped on my bike, and rushed over. I forgot all my mental preparations when I got the fax about my manuscript, the only three words that were imprinted into my eyes were, “It’s well written”. Till this day, I have no idea who this reviewer is, but I will always remember those three words.

Looking back, what was the grand purpose of these papers? They probably didn’t bring major technological advances or theoretical breakthroughs, and they certainly didn’t change the world. They only recorded new synthetic methods in the scientific literature and provided references for future studies. Personally, these experiences gave me the motivation to pursue a research career. I don’t judge papers by the impact factors of the journals. The value of a paper is weighed by its influence over future research. Those who lay the foundation are just as important as those who completed the house construction.

A Ph.D That Became Steppingstones for Others

Later, I went to UCLA to pursue my Ph.D. I started off with a topic given by my adviser. It was an intense struggle for two years, and I almost transferred to another school in northern California.

Well, at least I found my calling during those struggles – I discovered conducting polymer polyaniline nanofibers and eventually wrote a paper about it. This became my first paper as a graduate student and my first ever JACS paper – and my adviser’s first JACS paper as a professor, too! Science and C&E News both wrote highlights for us. I later published several more articles in this direction. Let’s just say I had a “moment.”

Many people thought that we were just lucky. It got to the point where I also started to wonder that how can a cute little synthesis like this be published in JACS, regarded as the top chemistry journal by people around me. Within just a year, I found that people were actually following up on my work. This surprise made me realize one thing, the simpler and more universal the methodology, the more people will use it. After all, what is the point of a publication if no one can learn and benefit from it, intellectually, even if it is published in Science or Nature?

One of my science heroes is Agnes Pockels, a self-taught German female scientist in the 18th century. She once said, “I learned to my great joy that my work is being used by others for their investigations.” I think all of our works should be steppingstones for future researchers. That is the foundation we should be laying when we publish papers, so that future researchers may learn from our discoveries or mistakes.

Gritting Your Teeth as a Postdoc

I did my postdoc under Professor Peidong Yang’s research group at UC Berkeley for three years.

For my first publication as a postdoc, we found that nanoparticles floating on the water surface sometimes arrange into these very beautiful and ordered patterns during the drying process. I remember seeing these patterns under an electron microscope at 3 o’clock in the morning. At Berkeley, students like to go up to the Berkeley hill to do electron microscopy in the middle of the night because the electron microscopes are usually too busy during the day. Franklin,my lab partner, and I sat staring at the city lights under the mountain frustrated and excited: We had no idea how this “pattern” came to be.

At the weekly meetings, Franklin and I couldn’t figure out what to tell Prof. Yang. Even after submitting the manuscript, we felt that we probably won’t be capable of handling reviewers’ criticism. Once we even ran to Prof. Yang and said, “Forget it, can we just submit it to an “easier” journal?” Prof. Yang just gave us the stare. Let’s just say we were embarrassed, so we gritted our teeth and tried again.

We had two ideas in mind. Trial and error or actually using your brain. Obviously, we picked option number one. We thought after you repeat it about 100 times, you should be able to get it right. We gave up after the 10th time. In the end, we were forced to use our heads. After taking a breather and carefully analyzing our data, with a few hypotheses and quick simulations, we realized that it was really possible to find the hidden clues. So, I told Steve, an undergrad in our group, would you like to pull an all-nighter with me and figure this out? If we succeed, I will treat you the fancy breakfast at the faculty club.

The experiment went so well. We thought we’ll be up all night but by three we were finished. I had to keep my promise to Steve, so we sat still until six when the earliest restaurant opens.

The experience was enlightening. Ever since undergrad, all my research was relatively smooth sailing. I used to tell myself, “He who fights and runs away, will live to fight another day.” It’s like hoping to stumble on a gold mine with a pickaxe already in your hand. We will never experience the pains of excavation if only getting used to dig up what is already there. This paper taught me that I don’t need to wait for the excavator because I can be one myself. What I lacked is a little perseverance and a little more confidence.

Thinking Like a PI

In September 2007, I was offered a job at Northwestern University. Unlike before, now I have to make my own decisions and supervise my students’ research. It became obvious that my “free” time became extremely limited with many other obligations other than research. I was also eager to let my students publish their first article as soon as possible, so that they can enjoy that huge sense of accomplishment as I did many years ago. Over time, our research group eventually developed some philosophies. Why do we publish papers?

(Excerpted from an editorial written by Jiaxing Huang in Accounts of Materials Research https://doi.org/10.1021/accountsmr.0c00080)

Correcting misunderstandings

Instead of trying to find new things all the time, we can also correct mistakes or misunderstandings that have misled others’ work. Of course, this requires our papers to be very convincing, or else all credibility goes out the window. For example, the discovery of the very high stiffness of graphene oxide thin films more than a decade ago was often attributed to some unusual properties associated with two-dimensional materials, which attracted many researchers around the world to jump in and study them. However, we found that this was actually an unfortunate misunderstanding. In many early works, graphene oxide film samples were obtained using alumina filter membranes, which corrode in even just slightly acidic solutions to release trivalent aluminum ions, thus cross-linking the negatively charged graphene oxide sheets. In other words, a series of previously reported unusual properties of graphene oxide are unfortunately based on the contaminated samples and did not reflect the true nature of this material.

Sometimes the burden of not understanding how it is correct is greater than those who understood why it was wrong. Other professors were describing to me the relief that their students felt when they saw our article. They finally understood why their samples did not work as well as expected, because it was based on an incorrect foundation. This paper itself wasn’t complicated at all. It was based on an inorganic chemical reaction that was taught in Chinese high schools. This article became one of our most representative works and it inspired us to write more articles in similar styles.

To advocate, to inspire and to bring hope

In the early stage of the Covid-19 pandemic, we wrote a very unusual paper calling for people to proactively study the challenges, break the boundaries and create solutions. It does not have any new research finding or experimental result. The purpose is to remind researchers, especially those in physical sciences about some common misunderstandings about the virus, share our analysis of some worthy research problems, and even some new ideas we generated.

I had the opportunity to talk with a virologist. He told me, “As viruses are 100-nanometer particles, there’s no point in wearing a mask.” I froze. The patients’ droplets contain all kinds of materials other than the viruses. Yes, the mask isn’t really supposed to block those 100-nanometer particles, but I’m pretty sure it can block micron and tens of micron sized droplets and dried nuclei. He then paused for a second and said, “You are right.”

This encounter got me thinking, apparently even the professionals can have blind spots, so there is a need for people to do something … I was extremely lucky that a graduate student, Haiyue Huang, fearlessly took the risk and joined me, in the spirit of “trying to do something about it”. To put it in the context, she had to drop everything else she was doing, and foolishly entered a whole new area – neither of us knew anything about viruses or infectious diseases at that time! We studied a textbook together, but she ended up teaching me quite a few things (she is a better student than I was). We combed through medical literature and consulted virtually with a group of biomedical experts, frontline clinicians and public health experts battling COVID-19 in China during the initial outbreak. We wrote this paper calling on physical scientists and engineers to take the initiative on issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic. It was published online the day when Wuhan’s lockdown was lifted.

I see this as my most important and impactful paper – it indeed inspired many others, and more so ourselves. It has become another transformative experience for me – I discovered the courage, strength, passion and gracefulness of many heroes out of ordinary people, including my own students.

Publications can be super fun

We were once invited to comment on the work of Prof. Shuhong Yu at USTC, who reported the use of bacteria to synthesize cellulose nanocomposites. This work immediately reminds me about the Minions. Thus, the title “Working with Minions” stuck in my head. We absolutely loved the idea, so much so that we decided to pay a CG artist to create the pictures and even went through the trouble to obtain license from the film company. I think this is the first pictures of minions ever showed up in any scientific literature. Not only was it fun but it did have a scientific significance behind it – best products were obtained when human work is synced with those of bacteria, at the comparable length scale and time scale.

Publications Can Help You Make Friends

In 2016, I was invited by the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (JSPS) to give a lecture tour in Japan and visited multiple universities and research institutes. Before that, I knew few friends from the Japanese academic circle. The reason why I was nominated was that my host professor at Kyoto University once reviewed one of my papers and liked it very much. He took the initiative to visit my laboratory. After an informal “interview”, he enthusiastically extended me the invitation to conduct the lecture tour. At Nagoya University, I met a well-known professor who was blunt as a bat. He told me that his research has barely any connection to my seminar so he wondered what I wanted to talk about. You should’ve seen this face lit up after opening his filing cabinet. He stared at the papers inside and said: “This Huang! You?!” It turned out that not long ago, he happened to read several papers I published during my Ph.D research. More so, he didn't expect me to come visit him in person! Naturally, we had a very pleasant conversation and became friends. Afterward, I went to the National Institute for Materials Science (NIMS) in Tsukuba. After giving the seminar, one of the professors came up to apologize. He told me that he once reviewed one of my papers and decided to reject it. But after my talk, he realized that he made a hasty judgment without reading it carefully. This has been an incredible exchange and we have been good friends since then.

Now back to the topic: Why do we publish papers?

If one paper can change the world, then this world would be lightyears in the future by now. Sometimes we don’t even fully appreciate the impact of our own discoveries and papers. But please never forget why you choose to be a scientist. Don’t treat papers like the points in your frequent flyer/buyer programs. Never should a scientist judge others by the number of papers they published or just by the journals the papers appear in. As the first author, you got to understand your own works inside and out. You must be able to talk about your own work anytime people ask.

Other than universities, there are other places that also do top notch research, such as companies and government research labs. But I believe that the motivation between the two research is very different. Research at a university means the exploration of new knowledge and frontiers for humanity. We create “global intellectual goods” for the entire humankind. Our value lies in how our work benefits future researchers and future generations. In simple terms, we educate.

For my students and myself, the fundamental purpose of our papers is to “educate”, broadly defined, and provide knowledge. We wish our discoveries, inventions, insights and ideas might help other researchers to advance their work in the future. So remember that we publish to share, to teach, and to educate.