Friday, March 9, 2012

Publishing or perishing 3

Following this previous post, I've found a few more articles about the dismissal of staff from the University of Sydney, for not publishing at least four papers in three years. This article is scathing of the university management, while Alex Burns, in this post, is in a similar vein to what I wrote: that four papers in three years is not an excessive number and that most academics should be able to meet it.

The most interesting post I found was this one, from David McGloin at the University of Dundee, where he lists a number of reasons someone might not reach the target number of publications. This is useful, as it informs as to what strategies academics could follow to avoid finding themselves in this sort of situation. Below, I reproduce each of his points, along with my responses:

It could be that you’re on the brink of some big breakthrough and the focus of this has taken many years to complete.

It is very dangerous for any academic to focus on one project to the exclusion of all others. Also, any project can be broken up into small, publishable chunks. That is, rather than writing up a single magnum opus of a paper at the end of the project, one should publish several smaller papers during the course of the work. This is more likely to make funding agencies happy as well, as it shows them that you are being consistently productive.

It may be that you’ve had bad luck with papers getting accepted, or have been doing good work, but maybe aiming to high up the journal league table.

Reformatting a rejected paper for another journal doesn't take very long. Waiting for reviews takes a long time (six months or more for some of my papers) but again, no academic should be working on just one project at a time. Everyone gets a period of bad luck with getting papers accepted (I had a long string of rejections throughout 2010 - I made up for it in 2011). The important thing is to have more than one project on the go at any one time, and to have a fast turn-around on rejected papers. If you follow a journal article submission strategy similar to the one I suggest, you should already have a good idea of other journals you could submit to.

It could be that you have had a run of poor luck on grant funding, and have not had the support to do your work and write up results, in terms of PhD students, postdocs, or simply a lack of equipment.

I do tend to agree with this point, especially for fields that need a lot of equipment to get results. I will point out, though, that having a good publication record will help with getting research grants.

Maybe a series of experiments didn’t work, but the next one will (and it will win a Nobel Prize).

Again, it is very important to pursue more than one research project at a time. That way, if one set of experiments doesn't work out, you can still publish the results from another.

Maybe your research output is highly subjective (think works by artists) and the critics didn’t like your last show.

This is more of a problem for researchers in the humanities. As a scientist I can't really comment on this, other than to point again to my responses above.

Maybe your research rivals knew about your employment conditions and decided to reject your last paper (to make it to the magic four) to get you sacked.

This is the most frightening point. Not only is such behavior completely unethical, it undermines the entire peer-review process. Anyone engaging in such  behavior - rejecting papers just because the author is a rival - should be sacked immediately. If this does happen, it is also a failure on the part of the journal editors. Most journal submission systems allow the authors to list reviewers they are opposed to. Any editor who sends a paper to a reviewer who they have reasonable suspicion is a rival of the author, is failing to do their job.

Or maybe, just maybe you didn’t feel the need to publish every last little bit of work to avoid saturating the journals and keep the overall quality of published work high enough to make it bearable to read them.

This is a non sequitor. Submitting a lot of papers does not mean a lack of quality in the papers. As I mentioned above, you can break your project up into smaller, publishable chunks and submit a paper on each. Planning your research program is an essential skill for the professional researcher. Also, if the quality of the paper is so low that it's unreadable, how would it get published to begin with?

Maybe you published one Nature paper a year over the last three years and nothing else, and they each got 500 citations

This is one of those situations that could occur, but is really unlikely. The people I know who do publish in Nature, are the people who publish 20+ papers (journal articles) per year! I really can't see how anyone could be good enough to publish three papers in a row in Nature yet not be good enough to get one more paper published in another journal.

Publish or perish is the rule of academia, and has been for a long time. Sensible and positive ways you can publish without perishing are:
  • pursuing more than one research project at a time 
  • collaborating widely (this is pretty easy to do in computational intelligence, as our algorithms are so widely applicable 
  • breaking your research into small, publishable chunks 
  • rapid turn-around on rejected papers 
It is time that the non-publishing staff at universities were put on notice to start producing. I know of more than one university computing department where the combined journal article output for all staff in 2011 was less than my own output. Why do these people have safe, permanent jobs, when so many young, productive researchers don't?