Sustainable publication rates

Peer-reviewed publications are the currency of academia, and are the primary driving force in determining who gets faculty jobs. There are other considerations, but this is #1. This hasn’t always been the case, take a look at older faculty CV’s, and measure the number of papers they had when they were hired (1 or 0), and what their yearly rate was prior to tenure. But, now that they are tenured and in charge of hiring they’ve come up with a new set of rules. I’ve been told that if you want tenure, you should be aiming at 2-3 peer-reviewed papers a year. That doesn’t count everything else, but still, 1 is clearly too-low, and averaging less than one dooms you to the academic margins (say hi to me when you are there). Again, there are exceptions, but this is largely the message. A person’s success or failure on the job market is often chalked up to their publication record, or the all-powerful H factor.

It is obvious that this is a relatively new phenomenon. Publishing has always been important, but the volume of expected papers continues to increase (well past what many older tenured faculty have ever produced, btw). Publishing is an essential part of science, it allows ideas to be spread and be tested. That is obvious. But is the push for volume good for science? For an extreme, but likely not uncommon example, consider Peter Higgs, emeritus professor, theoretical physicist, and Nobel Laureate, who has recently argued that in today’s academic climate he never would have landed a job, let along tenure.

The whole push for publications isn’t just about writing papers. I am now in a position where I am asked to review papers and proposals every so-often. I am also someone who keeps up to date with recent publications, both on my own, and as part of reading groups. And I’ve noticed something: most papers aren’t that great. A few a year are fantastic, most are meh, and a small number are terrible. Even things published in the highest profile journals have a less-than-50% chance of being really well written, IMHO. They aren’t necessarily wrong, just missing something.  I don’t know how long this has been the case, my view is of course biased. The only old papers that I know of are the ones that have already stood the test of time – I rarely browse a GSA Bulletin from 1982 just because. But still, when I browse new issues and download the most recent papers, my most common reaction is meh. Important to be published, but a little more time, a little more data, and a more careful interpretation would have served them well. I’ve also read plenty of papers that weren’t reviewed as closely as they should be. I am not saying they are wrong or bad, but that they could have been much better.

When I read a paper that is relevant to my work, review a paper, or have one to discuss in a reading group, I usually try to dig into it. By this I mean that I look carefully at the figures and the tables, read the paper more than once, check the references, and of course, download the data repository. As methods become more and more specialized though, my ability to critically evaluate the data and methods becomes more narrow. When I am working on papers that deal with thermochronology, I am golden. Geochronology, pretty good. Regional geology, depends where.

OK, so some things we can all agree on:

1. It is important to publish all data, even if the interpretation is uninteresting or indeterminate, the data needs to be out there. There are no real failures in science, and there is no roadmap to discovery. Despite the love we give for people who have awesome results, they aren’t necessarily any better at science, or any more important, than the hundreds of studies that haven’t come up with anything interesting.

2. The more papers that are published, the more papers you are asked to review. The more you are asked to review, the less time you spend on each one (especially since you get absolutely no credit for reviewing papers).

3. Good papers require time to write, especially when the data is complex. They also require funding, lab time, and field work (or some variation of these things).

So this has me thinking, what is a realistic and sustainable rate at which good papers can be published? The rate of expected publication continues to increase (based on recent hires I’ve watched), but where should it land? How does that vary from discipline to discipline? Shouldn’t we encourage scientists to write better papers?

For example, if you have the chance to publish 2 solid papers with lots of data and a well thought out interpretation, or 4 mediocre papers that are all missing a little something, the academic market forces would push you to chose neither, and somehow squeeze out 5 papers as quickly as possible. I think this is terrible. Meetings are for in-process studies, papers are for when things have reached a natural stopping point.

Now, I know that this is the way it is but complaining isn’t my goal. I know full well that this is the current state of academia, but it is not sustainable, and I am curious where it ends. Is the best possible solution? Is it the best way to do science? The community could change whenever it wanted to, so shouldn’t it look to create the best climate, and not just be content perpetuating an unrealistic norm?

The most dangerous phrase in the language is, “We’ve always done it this way.” – Grace Hopper

A colleague of mine is now asked to review papers or proposals at least once a week. She’s asked because she is great at what she does, but still, it is absurd to think she could keep up that clip, especially when reviewing papers gives you absolutely nothing to add to your tenure file or CV. If we want people to take time with their reviews and do a good job, then what is reasonable?

I don’t know the numbers. I’ve been trying to do some math in my head. How many people are there in the world who are qualified to critically review thermochronology data and models? If we need at least 3 reviewers per paper (plus an AE), and we expect them to review 1 paper a month (seems reasonable if you want them to do a good job), then how many papers could possibly be submitted and reviewed properly? Of course people other than thermochronologists could provide good criticism, but if we want to make sure that the central data, methods, and models are correct, we need at least a few specialists.

So where is the upper limit? Where do we maximize both production and quality? Where do we allow for in-depth reviews without requiring reviewers to volunteer too much time? Are there ways to make work as a reviewer worth more to a person’s career? How much time should the science behind a paper take? How much does that vary based on geoscience sub-field or career stage? I don’t know the answers to these questions, but it seems important. Things can’t speed up forever, especially without sacrificing quality. The current expectations are approaching a fast-food mentality, not really surprising seeing what academia is doing to its employees, where quantity is king. Over 4 billion papers published!

So I’m curious, what are your numbers? How long does a paper take, start to finish including field work, sample processing and analysis, and writing? How many could you sustainably write per year? How many can you review critically per year?

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5 Responses to Sustainable publication rates

  1. Kim says:

    One comment: are teaching-oriented institutions considered to be on the margins? Even within that group, publication expectations vary wildly (from a high at private schools in the US News rankings to a low at community colleges), but they aren’t 2 to 3 papers per year. Describing a large fraction of available academic jobs as “marginal” contributes to the problem – we hear our grad school colleagues describe their expectations as the norm, feel like failures, and push our junior colleagues to publish like research-university faculty of a couple decades ago.

    We hire people to teach a lot (so anyone who wants to be on the cutting edge of thermochronology shouldn’t follow by lead; I haven’t been in an argon lab since 1998). But these are jobs, with financial stability and tenure. Ignoring their existence doesn’t help grad students and post-docs who are trying to figure out what kind of job they want.

    (For a teaching-oriented job: publishing once every five years and presenting work with students at conferences every year is almost sustainable, depending on teaching loads. Expecting more leads to a desire to retire by age 50.)

    • That is a good point. By Academic marginalia I meant only jobs in academia that are not tenure-track. The paper requirement was really just based on my own experiences on the job market, and not perhaps a good understanding of the tenure process at those places. I applied for many jobs at teaching centered institutions, and in almost every case saw the person hired as the person with the most impressive publication resume. Perhaps they were the best person for the job all around anyways, but even while adjuncting at teaching-centered places I was encouraged to get more papers out if I wanted to be competitive. My experiences are a small sample of course. My primary goals, btw, were always to end up at a place that valued teaching above other things.
      Also a good point, sustainable publication rates need to take into account teaching loads!

  2. Brian Romans says:

    I am nearly halfway through the tenure-track journey an my department asked me and the other junior profs hired at the same time to submit a pre-pre-tenure document. This is essentially the same thing we will submit for tenure, but this is just for the department. It was a lot of work, but well worth it since I need to do it anyway.

    In the ‘research output’ section (i.e., publications) there was a sub-section to write about what you think are your best (important, influential, innovative, exciting, etc.) papers. I really like this because it gave me a chance to add more nuance than a list with citation statistics has. I could talk about how excited I was about a paper that might not be getting as many citations (yet) but is the best representation of my science.

    This doesn’t solve the more-is-better part of the culture by any means — I feel the pressure to be as productive as humanly possible — but it at leasts give the candidate a chance to discuss quality over quantity.

    To answer your question about what is a sustainable level of output — I really don’t know. I think 2-3 papers a year, with one of them being first-authored is pretty darn good in my discipline.

    • That seems like a decent approach, trying to highlight quality. As someone who has never been a faculty member or on a tenure review committee, I am mainly experiencing this as someone who is given a lot of advice from faculty members. Combine that with my view that a large chunk of the papers I read aren’t that great, and I wonder where that quantity/quality balance lies. I also think it is entirely different for different disciplines, especially if there is a large component of field work involved.

  3. EarthSciProf says:

    At the regional comprehensives where I teach, 4-5 papers before tenure is a pretty safe bet.

    Brian, interesting to hear that your perspective is that 2-3 papers/year is pretty good. I guess when one thinks about all the proposals that tenure-track people also need to get out the door, papers + proposals means a lot of writing.

    On the quality vs quantity thing, as I’ve reviewed more manuscripts in the last couple years (6 so far in 2014), I’m starting to think maybe we should focus more on quality. I’ve read a lot of badly written manuscripts, even from top research groups. I think a lot of the blame lies on the senior scientists who don’t give enough feedback to their grad students/post docs. To be fair, I’ve submitted some pretty bad manuscripts myself in my short career thus far.

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