How much should you publish?

For reputation or promotion? Book or peer-reviewed journal? Publishing is a high-stakes issue for academics. Catherine Léglu looks at scholars’ motivations to publish, where and how often

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University of Luxembourg

University of Luxembourg
11 Aug 2022
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Understanding peer review: what it is, how it works and why it is important

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Why do academics publish? They do so for a variety of motives. A humanities researcher might aspire to write books that people will consult and discuss for the next decade. Someone in STEM might want to contribute to a developing field of enquiry right now, seeking to put their data online fast. In both cases, there will be a third aim: to put accessible teaching and research resources into the public domain.

Academics in many countries are held to quantifiable objectives that stipulate the number of journal articles that they should produce, plus their journal impact factor or citation metrics. This is relatively new and, in fact, frequent academic publishing was not mandatory in many places until the 1980s. Which comes first for you: your desire to publish or the policy incentive to treat research as a measure of your productivity? The chicken or the egg?

Governments and universities standardise expectations around the balance of teaching, research and administration, setting individual targets that change over time and differ among countries. Producing three peer-reviewed articles plus one monograph every five or seven years or publishing the “book of the thesis” shortly after defending it are simply a matter of compliance. However, and to return to the core issue, many mentors advise new researchers to aim to publish at least one item per year.

Why aim to publish at least one item per year?

This target of at least one output per year assumes that you do research continuously. Publishing is an unpredictable business, and it is wise to have several items on the go at any one time. Turnaround times can be very slow (or very quick, if there is a gap in the next issue of a journal!), and a monograph takes at least two years to produce after the initial approach to the publisher.

My publications list cites five items that have not yet appeared: two “accepted, in press”, plus three “in progress”. This seems fine to me as a researcher in the humanities: there is plenty going on and space to change priorities for any reason. I do not know exactly when any of these items will be published, but I hope it will be within the next three years. What I do know is that only working on several outputs at a time guarantees that the target of one-plus per year can possibly be met.

The article processing charge (APC) now plays a very important role in the decision to publish. There are significant costs involved in open-access publishing, and budgeting for those costs differs across universities. Decisions sometimes have to be made about the best journal or platform on the basis of affordability rather than quality or prestige.

By “publication”, you should think in terms of what your institution or field accepts as significant outputs. If you are required to produce peer-reviewed journal articles, this should be your priority and outputs such as blogposts, working papers or book reviews should come second.

The second criterion is your field of research. One article per year may be realistic in one field (literature) but too low in another (chemistry). If a book is expected every five years, you will need time to write it, and this may mean publishing less when you are working on it.

Is publication required for career progression?

Unless there is a national policy, each university sets publication targets for awarding a PhD, for moving someone from a fixed-term to a permanent contract, or for promotion. This is a sensitive area because targets and expectations often change. The rising star who puts all their energy into writing books might one day be criticised as a “lone scholar”, while their colleague who only produces themed volumes will either be praised or blamed for focusing on collective work. It is wise to avoid putting all your eggs in one basket.

Is it possible to publish too often?

Yes (because quality and quantity are not the same thing) and no (because we do not know who reads our work). Sticking with the egg metaphor, we will not know if we have laid a golden or a rotten egg until there are bibliometrics to prove it.

Quantitative approaches to measuring research activity have led to the publication of immature, even superfluous work just to get the right number of outputs before a deadline for a grant or a census. However, the unpredictability of publishing means that a preliminary study might come out after the more mature pieces. We do not know if a short article in a minor journal will have more impact than a monograph. It might be better to publish both.

I have not discussed co-authorship because that is not something I am familiar with. As John Ioannidis, a statistician at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, has shown, the “hyperprolific author” (someone whose name appears in more than 70 co-authored articles per year) exists for several reasons, chief among them grant capture and reputation. But, of course, being called hyperprolific implies that it is not the most optimal approach to building a scientific reputation.

To conclude, publishing is a crucial part of academic life, from the first conference paper to the end-of-career reflection. It is often mandatory to work to quantifiable targets, but the best approach is to manage external expectations while allowing your own motivation to flourish.

Catherine Léglu is vice-rector for academic affairs at the University of Luxembourg.

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