Friday, August 06, 2004

When to Announce?

Suppose you have some partial solutions of a popular problem. At what point do you announce your results? If you announce your partial results you run the risk of someone else taking your ideas and solving the full problem and you won't get as much credit as you deserve. If you wait and try to extend the work yourself someone else might get the same results you already have and you'll lose or at best have to share the authorship.

If you are completely altruistic you should announce your progress as this will best advance science quickly. But as in the end you need to worry about your own publication record, particularly for a young researcher, the answer isn't so clear. Of course it depends on many factors including your belief that you or others could extend the work as well as when the next conference deadline occurs.

Oddly enough before the internet (in the eighties) such decisions were easier. You could write up a technical report to establish your result and you would have months before your work spread throughout the community. This gives you plenty of time to try and extend the work. The quick spread of information not only improves collaborative work as it does, but forces us to make decisions that we could avoid in the past.


  1. Lance, is there something you would like to announce? :-)

  2. It's not completely obvious that it's easier to announce partial results when they take months to spread. Suppose you announce a partial result, and then a month later prove the full result. Then presumably the full result will *also* take months to spread. So, in the month between hearing the partial result and hearing the full result, someone else might prove the full result independently of you; then presumably you'd need to share credit with that person. On the other hand, there's less chance of someone else taking *all* the credit for the full result, which is a real advantage. In general, the "special theory of resultativity" would predict that, the faster the lightcones of new results propagate through academia, the less often credit is shared.

  3. However, the special theory of resultativity (what a cool name !) does not take into account the fact that after some point, it is the publication that gets recognized, rather than the initial announcement. So if I announce a result, and in the time it takes to get submitted, someone else improves it and submits it, then the conference committee (even if they are aware of my announcement), will have to view the improvement as "independent work" and might force a merge.

    In other words, it is the "observation" at the conference that fixes the timestamp. Maybe we need a quantum theory of resultativity....

  4. One of my most-cited papers grew out of posting an open problem to my web page. On the other hand, I've been scooped our of at least one paper because I didn't announce my partial results.

    I think it's mostly a function of how competitive you are and how much faith you have in your research community. If one of your peers saw (or heard about) your partial results and finished them off, would you expect them to publish their result without mentioning you at all, publish with a citation of your partial results, invite you to be a co-author, or ASK to be your co-author? (I'm not asking about what you think they SHOULD do, but what your experience tells you they WOULD do.)

    If you expect an request/offer of co-authorship, you really have nothing to lose by announcing your partial results. You'll still get credit for the final product�both your CVs will be one paper longer�and the result will get out the door faster, leaving you and your new co-author more time to work on other problems. Everybody wins. (True, co-authored papers aren't worth as much tenure-karma as solo papers, but the exchange rate is less than the reciprocal of the number of authors.) Even better, if you make a habit of posting fertile partial results, you'll get a reputation as someone with lots of good ideas and lots of impact.