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The Least Interesting Unit: A New Concept for Enhancing One’s Academic Career Opportunities


Motivated by a current development in the physics community, this paper introduces the notion of a least interesting unit (LIU) in research as an investigation that is just interesting enough to pursue. A new general maxim for science is then that a researcher should pursue as many LIUs as possible. Although fulfilling this maxim enhances one’s perspective for a career in the present publish-or-perish academic world, in particular when simultaneously publishing one’s results in the form of as many least publishable units as possible, this paper concludes that it is an example of an unethical practice: it may undermine scientific progress, it may lead to a waste of valuable resources, and it may contribute to an erosion of norms and values in science.

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  1. In branches of science like chemistry and biology one virtually always has \({\mathrm{P_{EXP}}} \approx 1\). But in theoretical physics, where much of the work is focussed at the Planck scale, this is not the case.

  2. This is not meant to imply that physics is monolithic: it is not the intention to imply that this is the only development in physics. But this is the one development that motivated the introduction of the least interesting unit.

  3. Van Fraassen has introduced the weaker notion of ‘empirical adequacy’ (1980), but for the present purposes it is sufficient to use the notion of correctness.

  4. It is not the case that this new Maxim necessarily follows from this development in physics: this is not a matter of deduction.

  5. Of course, in a period of what Kuhn called ‘normal science’ a great deal of the research may consist of LIUs. These may even be necessary for progress, e.g. to develop details within a given paradigm. But the present discussion is not about the necessity of doing some LIUs for normal science: it’s about the ethical aspects of doing nothing but LIUs.


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Correspondence to Marcoen J. T. F. Cabbolet.

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Cabbolet, M.J.T.F. The Least Interesting Unit: A New Concept for Enhancing One’s Academic Career Opportunities. Sci Eng Ethics 22, 1837–1841 (2016).

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  • Least publishable unit
  • Research ethics
  • Scientific quality