Restrict researchers to one paper a year, says UCL professor

Uta Frith says limit would force academics to focus on quality over quantity

November 28, 2019
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When many successful scientists boast dozens, even hundreds, of research papers to their name, calls for more “quality over quantity” in publication can appear to ring rather hollow.

Now a former president of the British Science Association has suggested a radical proposal to combat this problem: restricting researchers to just one scholarly paper a year.

Calling for a “slow science” revolution, Uta Frith, emeritus professor of cognitive development at UCL, said a new consensus about “doing less but better” was needed to address the “information overload” created by the relentless pressure to publish.

Writing in Trends in Cognitive Sciences, Professor Frith says it is time to “ask ourselves what good does the glut of fast-appearing publications do for science”, particularly as publication output would be “swelled in the future by reports of null results and replication failures”.

“The most provocative of my suggestions is to drastically restrict…the number of papers anyone can publish per year. Personally, I would aim for just one,” she writes.

Reflecting on how her own career, in which she has authored or co-authored some 351 publications, according to her institutional profile, the autism expert admits that she had produced “papers that I wish I had not published because they are not sufficiently original or methodologically robust”.

“I think it is important to tell young researchers about this regret and make them aware that in time they might feel similarly,” writes Professor Frith, who adds that a “scientist’s reputation in the long run will be built on their best publications and lessened or even undermined by their weaker ones”.

That is unlikely to be a view shared by some of academia’s more prolific researchers, with a handful of scholars managing to publish the equivalent of almost one research paper a day.

Analysis by Times Higher Education found that the world’s most prolific scholar between 2016 and 2018 was Tasawar Hayat, professor of mathematics at Pakistan’s Quaid-i-Azam University, who published 996 articles. In the UK, Gregory Lip, professor of cardiovascular medicine at the University of Liverpool, co-authored 548 peer-reviewed papers in this three-year period, according to Elsevier’s Scopus database.

Speaking to THE, Professor Frith acknowledged that her proposal was “utopian” but voiced a hope that it might start a debate on whether the “relentless increase” in article publication seen in recent years was desirable.

“There must be a trade-off between quality and quantity,” she said, adding that institutions and funders should “look at publication quality, rather than quantity”, when awarding positions or grants.

Professor Frith said she recognised that an annual limit of a single research paper might be difficult for some disciplines, particularly those scientific areas where papers often have numerous authors, allowing researchers to publish dozens of times a year.

However, she suggested, fewer authors could be listed on such papers, with a more detailed postscript explaining the specific role of contributors, rather than designating them all co-authors. “Science is increasingly a team pursuit, but I think we should be acknowledging contributions in a different way,” Professor Frith said.

In her article, Professor Frith also suggests that the number of grants that any researcher can hold at one time could be limited.


Print headline: One really good thing: ‘do less but better’

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Reader's comments (8)

Smyth, John 2017, The Toxic University: Zombie Leadership, Academic Rock Stars and Neoliberal Ideology, Palgrave Macmillan
Perhaps relentless self promotion should also be limited to one puff a year
Idea is good but restricting one paper per year is not desirable however quality of each paper can be emphasized but the ranking of Institutions have started a new found mad race to be a Global Ranked Institution to attract more students as well as look more prestigious than others. How this quality research is incuded in The ranking system is also another question. Prof S.S.Chandel
This is not as Dr Frith put's it a "Utopian vision" but to those of us who enjoy and value our research more of a dystopian vision. Whilst many of us accept that the drive for "quantity over quality" is bad for research, and most of us have colleagues who published research where they took shortcuts or made assumptions that they should not have, these are issues that should be fixed by a better peer-review process. Saying "limit publication number" is just like saying "stop car accidents by preventing anyone driving", it fixes the problem but also removes many of the benefits and does not get to the heart of the issue or the reason we should be conducting research, which is to improve our knowledge and help fields grow, or effect genuine change. The comment also displays a complete lack of how other fields work, for many of us we work alongside our students towards their higher degrees, and limiting paper number would lead to a prioritisation of the very brightest or best-writing students and the neglect of others, including those with English as a second language, who are less likely to publish at the same level. In addition, such a policy would never be implemented in research institutes with no teaching responsibility, or in countries like China (which is already gaining an edge on research). Limiting researchers in the West to a single paper would cause many to move to countries like China which would never impose such a limit and are actively recruiting from the West, and thus affect a brain drain in many of the brighter researchers.
An excellent start towards the Slow University as I wrote in The Decline and Renaissance of Universities: Moving from the Big Brother University to the Slow University recently published by Springer, 2019 Renzo Rosso Politecnico di Milano
I occur. Quality, not quantity.
ah yes. The old "I benefited from publishing a lot, but now I have the regrets, so no one should be able to publish lots like I did". Also, getting a job in academia requires publications especially at the beginning. A lack of attention to this crucial factor is a bit silly.
996 papers in 2 years and 1 paper per year, both seem extreme. As long as the the 'number of publications' remains an important metric of career advancement in academia, researchers will keep on publishing for the sake of numbers. There can be no end to this unless the management in acedemia changes it's career advancement criteria. P.S. 351 career papers are also a lot.