If you didn’t know, in economics and political science, people are hired for faculty positions based in large part on their “job market paper”. As in, one paper, ordinarily from their Ph.D. work and often not even published yet. Number of publications matters relatively little (though apparently it matters more in political science than in economics). Economics even has a centralized repository of job market papers; that’s how much they matter.
I am curious to hear what you think of this, and whether you think this approach or something like it could be an improvement on current practices in ecology. Personally, I think current faculty hiring practices in ecology are mostly pretty reasonable (see also), and so don’t think this would be a net improvement on current practices in ecology. But I think it’s not so obviously a bad idea as to be uninteresting to think about. I find it useful to think about the practices of other fields and whether they’d transfer to ecology. It helps me look at standard practice in ecology with fresh eyes. A few thoughts to get the ball rolling:
- If you think that quality ought to matter more than quantity and that it would be best for science as a whole if scientists had incentives to publish fewer, better papers, well, here’s an actually-existing model of what it might look like to strongly favor quality over quantity!
- I’m wondering if this is a good way to identify the job candidate who will have the best long-term research program? Or if it might skew hiring towards people who do certain kinds of (good) research over people who do other kinds of (also good) research. This procedure would seem to favor people who, by dint of choice of question and/or research approach, can produce outstanding standalone papers as grad students (e.g., the sort of papers that win the Mercer Award). Which isn’t necessarily the same people who will have the strongest long-term research programs, though it might not be a bad predictor either (or even a pretty good predictor?) Of course, it’s already the case that you can’t expect to get a faculty position in ecology at a research university without doing significant research that only took you and your collaborators a few years to do. But possibly, relying on job market papers would select for people who do short studies of tractable problems, to a greater extent than current practices select for such people. (important aside: “short study” here means “study that can be completed in a few years or less”, which isn’t necessarily the same thing as “study based on only a few years or generations worth of data”. A “short study” might be based on many years or generations worth of previously-collected data, or based on many generations of data from short-lived organisms.)
- Economics and political science are not collaborative fields, though that’s slowly changing. Many papers in those fields are sole-authored, or at most dual-authored. I’ve noted in the past that current hiring, tenure, and promotion practices in ecology do not disfavor collaborative work. But relying heavily on job market papers probably would.
- In economics and political science, it’s my impression that job market papers get read, carefully, by everyone on the search committee, at least for the many candidates whose research area makes them a decent fit for the position. Whereas in ecology, I suspect it’s common for the search to be cut down pretty far before most search committee members thoroughly read any of the candidates’ papers, at which point they might well read up to three papers from each remaining candidate (or maybe that’s just me?) Which raises the question: is it better for search committee members to carefully read one paper from each of many candidates, or read several papers from each of fewer candidates? Or maybe that’s a poor framing of the choice here?
- I think there’s a big difference between evaluating reforms like this in the short- vs. the long-term. To use a macroeconomic analogy, it’s like the difference between partial equilibrium and full equilibrium analysis. To use an ecological analogy, it’s like the difference between the short-term response to a perturbation, and the long-term response after feedbacks kick in. If tomorrow every research university hiring an ecologist announced that they were going to start focusing heavily on each candidate’s one best paper, I think that’d be a bad idea. There’d be a serious mismatch between how faculty job candidates conduct and publish their research, and how their work is evaluated by search committees. And I don’t know how you’d get from the current “locally stable equilibrium” in ecology to the econ/polisci “locally stable equilibrium” without going through a transition phase that would be quite awkward. But I haven’t thought about it much.
I know not everyone likes to comment, so just for fun here’s a little poll: