Carlos S. Alvarado, PhD, Research Fellow, Parapsychology Foundation
One frequently hears criticisms of academic publishing, and of the pressures in academia to publish or perish. But while there are good critiques, I believe, along with many colleagues, that academic publishing is essential for parapsychology to move forward and to present a good image of its scientific and scholarly work.
When I mention academic publishing I am referring to refereed publications. This includes most serious journals of various disciplines and some academic and scholarly book publishers who care about the expertise of their authors and editors.
While there is a literature of this sort in our field (for examples click here, here, and here), we have, unfortunately, a high quantity of research that remains unpublished in our scientific and scholarly literature. It is not helpful to say that many things go unpublished as well in other fields because parapsychology has so few workers and for us, the importance of publishing cannot be properly compared to other more established disciplines.
It’s not that nothing is being published. But I sometimes hear about experiments on remote viewing and macro-PK, or field studies (e.g., poltergeists) that are talked about repeatedly but never seem to get published. Similarly for years I have heard mention of research supposedly conducted by the associated members of a research center, but none of that research ever seems to be completed, much less published. This type of situation gets even more complicated when unpublished research is tied up with monetary and public relations interests and is used to bolster or support the reputation of the place. While such practices may help the research center involved, for the field as whole, it looks as if even more research is out there that has never been written up.
It is true that the percentage of unpublished to properly published research is an old problem for our field. It has never been difficult to find papers in past proceedings and among the current abstracts of papers presented in the annual conventions of the Parapsychological Association that have not been published, even years after they have been presented. Unfortunately many of these papers are used in meta-analyses. Recently I examined one of these meta-analyses and found that 30% of the papers used in the analysis were unpublished PA papers. These papers, one must keep in mind, are generally shorter that journal papers, and may lack information that would be included in journal publications. In addition to which, any future researcher will have a hard time getting copies of these papers precisely because they are unpublished.
These days though, we have the added problem of the proliferation of informal publishing outlets. Many field investigators study poltergeist and haunting cases that never get published, or that get summarized on websites or in popular books that generally lack the details necessary to evaluate the quality of the case, much less consider the depiction of it a scientific publication. And then there is the problem that few of the case reports posted to websites or included in popular books have had the benefit of expert peer review. Even worse, we live in a time when popular publications regularly get confused by the general public with serious academic reports. This does not raise the image of our field among mainstream scientists, and does much to confuse students and new researchers in our field who are searching for our best evidence.
If you believe as I do that science needs to correct its own mistakes and that replication is key to progress, then the importance of academic, scholarly and scientific publication becomes obvious.
Leaving laziness, apathy and anti-intellectualism aside, there are sometimes very good reasons for the lack of publication. Many people do not have stable professional positions and have left the field after their work was done but before they were able to publish it. In one case a good proportion of the work had to be kept secret for years because of constraints laid upon it by government funders. But then there are other cases I know in which people seem to have had the possibility of preparing their materials for peer-reviewed publication but have not done so. Encouragement for and appreciation of taking that final step in the scientific process can help those people find the motivation to get their work into peer-reviewed print.
My point here is not to condemn people, but to point out that this situation is particularly onerous for our field. Not only is parapsychology’s image as a science diminished when we have to rely on popular books, and unpublished writings as the source of the field’s findings, but such a situation is particularly problematic in a field like ours where so few of us are actually able to conduct research.
Parapsychology needs to rise to the challenge: whenever possible research results need to be published in peer-reviewed journals, whether parapsychology-specific journals or in the journals of other disciplines. And the primary research institutions of the field, whether private or public, need to encourage scientific reporting in academic or scholarly books or in peer-reviewed journals among their staff and associates, as well as encourage reading the peer-reviewed literature even if it requires more preparation and more effort than the popular materials. Science and scholarship progresses on the presence of visible, accessible, well-designed, well-done, well-reported, properly vetted and published materials. The same is true for our field. Granted this is an old goal for our field, but it is one that we need to achieve.