No, that’s not a #slatepitch or deliberate provocation. It’s hard data.
A little while ago I compared the cv’s of this year’s ASN Jasper Loftus-Hill Young Investigator Award applicants to those of past winners. To my surprise, I found that top young ecologists and evolutionary biologists today are not publishing more papers than they did decades ago. Rather, they’re just publishing with more co-authors.
Turns out that my findings generalize to all scientists since 1900! In the linked paper (open access), Fanelli & Larivière analyzed WoS data for 40,000 scientists across all fields of science from 1900 to 2013. If you correct for increases in average number of co-authors per paper, or only count first-authored papers, scientists today are not publishing any more on a per-capita basis during their first 15 years of publication activity than they were a century ago. And no, the answer doesn’t really change if you only look at post-1980 data, or if you only look at scientists from certain countries. To which, wow. I would not have guessed that.
I’ve been trying and failing to think of a reason the results could be a totally misleading artifact. I haven’t come up with anything. Can you think of anything? (Note: please read the paper before answering. There’s no point in speculating on the answer to this question based only on my bare-bones summary or the paper’s abstract.)
It is true that more scientists are publishing at least occasional papers now than they used to. Back before the 1960s or so, only a minority of American college and university faculty ever published. Today a substantial majority do. So it’s possible that the variance of the distribution has increased, even though the central tendency hasn’t budged. Maybe these days there are more people publishing only occasional papers (rather than none at all), and also more people publishing scads of papers. It’s hard to tell if this is true from eyeballing the figures in the paper, but it looks like it could be. Which if so, might explain the widespread mistaken impression that everybody is publishing more these days. Maybe we all pay attention to those rare people who crank out scads of papers, and then mistakenly think of those people as representative.
I’m also curious about the extent to which changes in number of co-authors per paper represent changes in authorship practices, vs. changes in how science is actually done. Are we all truly more collaborative these days than we used to be, and doing work that people could not have done on their own back in less-collaborative times? Or was everybody collaborating just as much back in the day, but not giving one another co-authorships for it? Here’s one data point from Meg, suggesting that the only thing that’s changed is authorship practices.
So, if people aren’t actually publishing more these days, how come everybody thinks they are, and thinks pressures to publish are increasing? My “misinterpreting increased variance” hypothesis is one possibility. Another possibility: maybe everyone mistakenly assumes that, because people now have stronger incentives to publish more*, that they actually are publishing more. I’ve made that mistake myself in the past–assuming that, because people have strong incentives to behave in a certain way, that they actually do behave in that way. The authors suggest a few other hypotheses. For instance, perhaps scientists today have increasing demands on their time, and so feel pressure to maintain the same publication rate while allocating less time to research and writing. Or, perhaps the amount of time and effort required to produce a paper’s worth of science has increased, so that scientists are allocating more time to research and writing than they used to but only producing papers at the same rate.**
Anyway, consider “everyone is publishing more these days” another busted academic myth. A reminder, if one were needed, that things everybody “knows” often aren’t true.
*Do they, though? For instance, do you now need many more publications to get a grant than used to be the case? Do you now need to have more publications than you used to in order to have good odds of getting hired for a tenure-track job? Do your odds of being tenured or promoted, or your salary, increase more steeply with your number of publications than used to be the case? I dunno, maybe the answers are “yes”, “yes”, and “yes”. But I wouldn’t assume that, and I’d be curious to see data. I’m sure it’s out there.
**Maybe in part because people are increasingly wasting time submitting to, and getting rejected from, highly selective journals? Then again, maybe not: 75% of all published papers are submitted first to the journal that eventually publishes them. Now, maybe that number was even higher in the past. But even if it was I find it hard to believe that time spent revising and resubmitting rejected papers is a big reason why scientists today are not publishing more than they did decades ago.