Monday, 2 November 2009

The pressure to publish...

The modern academic faces a lot of pressure to be productive, especially to publish papers.

There are pros and cons to this. In the "good old days" (I'm told), academics gained a faculty position and then were left to their own research devices for the next few decades. This is great for truly creative research (so-called "blue sky" thinking), because you can focus exclusively on the problem, letting it develop and exploring its various facets without spending time/effort producing incremental publications. Or course, it may also have allowed some academics to coast.

I'm a strong believer that there's a lot of benefit to academic creativity. What we do is intrinsically creative and creativity needs a bit of scope to explore new ideas, without having to worry if they'll turn into a paper or a grant proposal. But I think there's also a pretty good case for a balance. After all, if an academic spends their whole career deep in thought and never writes a word of it down, their research hasn't been useful to anyone. So, the question becomes this: what balance should we strike between productivity and creativity? Between writing papers and trying out new ideas.

To some degree, this is a trade-off between quality and quantity. The academic that publishes all the time runs the risk of writing papers that have very little important content. There are lots of academic papers that get churned out that have some limited merit, but that exist mainly because the authors felt the pressure to publish. On the other hand, the academic who hardly ever publishes should (hopefully) write papers with lots of great content. Just not very many of them.

There is also a subtlety to this trade-off. While publishing more frequently will tend to mean less research goes into each paper, it does mean that you'll get more rapid feedback on your work (from referees and readers). This is important because it crowd-sources your research, getting a whole range of suggestions and criticisms that will help improve and inform the next stage of your work. Research is actually very incremental (think about how your projects progress on a day-to-day basis), so this can be really beneficial.

And of course it can be argued that the funder (the UK tax payer, in my case) has the right to expect some kind of return for their investment. I think this is fair enough, but I think a lot of care has to be taken in how one defines this return. Number of papers is almost certainly a terrible measure (who cares if an academic writes 50 papers if none of them have any lasting impact). Maybe there has to be a degree of trust between funder and academic?

My gut feeling is that one awesome lead-author paper per year is what we should be aiming for. If you generate enough research for more, great. But one really great paper per year where you're the lead researcher seems to me to be a good level. This should give you enough time to try ideas out and develop new projects, while also building a good publication record over time. If you're like me, you'll also spend a fair amount of time contributing to projects where someone else will be lead author on the papers; this is valuable and you should end up being a co-author on papers as a result.

So the message of this post is to strike a balance. Whatever the rights and wrongs of productivity versus creativity, you need to publish papers to build an academic career. And I really do mean it about the 'awesome' bit. Would you rather be known as the researcher who's produced half a dozen fantastic lead-author papers, or the one who has written fifteen that are deeply uninteresting?

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