, Volume 191, Issue 1, pp 17–35 | Cite as

Is a bird in the hand worth two in the bush? Or, whether scientists should publish intermediate results

  • Thomas BoyerEmail author


A part of the scientific literature consists of intermediate results within a longer project. Scientists often publish a first result in the course of their work, while aware that they should soon achieve a more advanced result from this preliminary result. Should they follow the proverb “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush”, and publish any intermediate result they get? This is the normative question addressed in this paper. My aim is to clarify, to refine, and to assess informal arguments about the choice whether to publish intermediate results. To this end, I adopt a rational decision framework, supposing some utility or preferences, and I propose a formal model. The best publishing strategy turns out to depend on the research situation. In some simple circumstances, even selfish and short-minded scientists should publish their intermediate results, and should thus behave like their altruistic peers, i. e. like society would like them to behave. In other research situations, with inhomogeneous reward or difficulty profiles, the best strategy is opposite. These results suggest qualified philosophical morals.


Social epistemology Intermediate results Publication Formal model 



Many thanks to Anouk Barberousse, Conor Mayo-Wilson, Jan Sprenger, Mikael Cozic, Philip Kitcher, Michael Strevens and an anonymous referee for their critical remarks and encouragements, which helped much improve this paper. Thanks also to participants in the EPSA conference in October 2011 in Athens (Greece), in the “Collective Dimension of Science” conference in December 2011 in Nancy (France), and in the “Progress of Science” conference in April 2012 in Tilburg (The Netherlands), for their remarks. The paper has been written while at the IHPST (UMR 8590, CNRS, Université de Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne, ENS), at Columbia University (NY, USA), at the Archives Henri Poincaré (UMR 7117 CNRS, Université de Lorraine) and at Savoirs, Textes, Langage (UMR 8163 CNRS, Université Lille 1, Université Lille 3). A special financial support is acknowledged from the Université de Paris 1.


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© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Savoirs, Textes, Langage (UMR 8163 CNRS, Université Lille 1, Université Lille 3) Villeneuve d’AscqFrance
  2. 2.Archives Henri Poincaré (UMR 7117 CNRS, Université de Lorraine) NancyFrance

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