Publication rates and Discipline difficulties

Namnezia has an on point comment about discipline differences, talking about whether one should devote energy to inconsequential papers as opposed to following the new and exciting research. This deserves a full response.

Some experiments do take longer. So do some kinds of fieldwork (rainy seasons, dry seasons, migration seasons). So does collecting most clinical data (waiting for the right kind of patients to show up). And if there was some valid way of correlating time spent waiting for data, with any particular subdiscipline, then there might be a real argument made.

Even more so, multiple factors contribute to delays and lost time, including unpredictable failures that plague all fields (failures of reagents, electrodes, equipment), and sampling/data collection issues (failures of mating of animals, the vagaries of individuals with a particular disease, getting the right ethnic/gender/racial distribution of human subjects). Time to data is a multifactorial problem, and I have not seen any partitioning of variation to suggest which of these factors explains most of the variation how long it takes to publish and number of publications, and how that explains variation across subdisciplines. Certainly someone doing solo work (as is true in lots of organismic and ecologic level studies) will have in the end, fewer pubs that someone in a big lab, where everybody gets to be a middle author on things. The only correlation I’ve noted (and taken back of the envelope surveys during study sections) is that people seldom argue for problems in other disciplines, but frequently claim this for their own subdiscipline.

But to return to Namnezia, I am not advocating focusing on inconsequential pubs (of course not). But the person who can get another pub out each year while exploring the new & exciting direction is going to be a stronger candidate for tenure than the one who doesn’t. It may not be fair, it may not be right, but all the reasons for not getting stuff out aren’t fair or evenly distributed either.

Someone who has less than one pub per year will not look as good as someone who has more than one pub per year. And someone with less than 0.5 pub per year is just not going to get funded because of the score on Personnel. I saw this happen at study section. Someone coming up for tenure, with less than 6 total pubs, who makes the argument that their field is harder is only going to irritate the committee. Make an argument about the complexity of your science in the papers published. Make an argument about the worth of the pubs you do have. But telling the tenure committee that your work is tougher than theirs smacks of teaching your grandmother to suck eggs.

Namnezia is correct — it is a fine balance. I think one of the few things that is true in the long run (besides that we will all be dead), is that quantity of output is used as one measure of how hard people work. Again, it may not be right, it may not be fair but I have heard at study section “the rate of publication raises concerns as to the completion of the proposed project”. Therefore, figuring out an easy & cheap (which is not the same thing as inconsequential) pub to get out may be critical for one’s future. In my experience, one of the hardest things for TT faculty, hell all of us, is to let papers go, not to end the project, but to submit work at a point where they can be published.

It is not easy for young scientists today. I know that. The metaconcern here is that it is hard is for TT scientists to step out of their skin and try to perceive how they are perceived by the people making decisions about their future. I’m not claiming I was good at this when I was a zygote. But it is an essential survival trait today.


2 thoughts on “Publication rates and Discipline difficulties

  1. I agree with all your points, though it seems like your prior post stemmed more from your experience with someone who pissed off the study section by whining at them, rather than a general trend. One example I wanted to bring up is a colleague who is jr faculty at a state university. She was told that to get tenure she needed to have at least 2 pubs per year for a total of 12 in 6 years. In my field almost nobody does this before tenure, even the superstars. But it seems like a hard and fast requirement. The quality of the pubs does not seem to be an issue, so she’s being urged to publish any thing and everything and to collaborate as much as possible to meet the quote, so she’s spending her research time trying to do all these little side project to reach this level of publication, and this is in addition to a full teaching load. While this might get her tenure, it might not help her career in the long run, since it becomes impossible to develop a focus. I know this is an extreme counterexample, but it does happen and as you say, balance is important.

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