The relentless pressure for researchers to get their work into journals, or face consequences for their careers, is one of the biggest concerns in academia and has been blamed for robbing scholars of the time to conceive profound, transformative ideas.
Last year, for example, the Wellcome Trust announced that it would fund longer-term projects to offset this pressure: the “model of chasing the next paper in the next journal” was constricting scientists’ ability to “dream”, said Jeremy Farrar, the trust’s director.
But pitting research quantity against quality in this way is based on a misconception of how academics come up with good ideas, according to an expert on research productivity who has discovered that more prolific academics often actually write more influential papers – a finding that he believes has implications for how academics are assessed and funded.
Ulf Sandström, a guest professor of science and technology studies at KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, looked at the publishing records of 48,000 researchers based in Sweden and found that in most subjects, the proportion of high-quality articles – as measured by citations – held steady or even improved as they published more papers. Only in the humanities did it drop off.
He said that he “cannot understand” fears about a pressure to publish in academia because there was “no evidence” that publishing more papers leads to poorer quality research.
Instead, there is a virtuous circle between publishing papers and their having an impact, he argued. “From creativity and psychology analysis, we know that you can’t do the right thing first time. You need to do a lot of trials to have something that is really interesting,” he said. “The more you try, the more you know.”
The notion that researchers needed long periods of time to “sit and think and think and think” without publishing anything in order to conceive a groundbreaking idea was a false view of the scientific process, Professor Sandström said. Researchers generally do lots of work in one scientific paradigm before coming up with atypical ideas, he argued.
Prolific researchers were also better known in their networks, and more embedded and organised, meaning that peers were more likely to cite them, he added.
Successful scientists also accrued more postdoctoral students, which allowed them to conduct more research, he explained. But Professor Sandström added that his analysis had ruled out the possibility that prolific, highly cited authors were simply senior researchers leveraging their power to add their names on to the work of others.
Professor Sandström’s co-authored paper, “Quantity and/or quality? The importance of publishing many papers”, published in Plos One, argues that the results have implications for research policy – specifically, assessment exercises that limit the number of papers an academic can present.
The UK’s research excellence framework was one “very strange” example of this, he said, because it caps the number of papers that researchers can submit (four in 2014), meaning that researchers with many more publications to their name were not rewarded.
“Productivity is a very important aspect of research,” he said.