The “always have two papers in review” rule of thumb (UPDATEDX2)

UPDATE 2: This post seems to be attracting a fair bit of attention on Twitter, so: greetings reader who has perhaps never read this blog before, but who probably saw the title on Twitter and is perhaps already kind of upset with both the post and me. Welcome! I’m adding this second update to address some misunderstandings you may have because you’ve only read the post title.

  • Attempting to follow the rule of thumb stated in the post title has helped me, personally, achieve my goal of publishing high quality papers I can be proud of, at a rate (about 3-ish papers/year on average) that satisfies my employer and peers, and that is commensurate with me not working extremely long hours and having a life outside of work. But as the post states multiple times, YOUR MILEAGE MAY VARY. I welcome others saying “this rule of thumb wouldn’t work for me”, whether because they follow some other rule of thumb or no rule at all. That’s how we all learn about the diversity of practices that work for the diversity of people in the world. Thank you to the many folks who’ve indicated that they follow this rule, and to the many other folks who’ve indicated that they follow some other rule or no rule at all and who recognize that different approaches work for different people. But if you are incredulous or otherwise upset that anyone would attempt to follow the rule of thumb in the post title, despite me having said “your mileage may vary”, well, I’m honestly unsure what else I’m supposed to say in reply besides “your mileage may vary”. So: “your mileage may vary”.
  • You may think that anybody who follows the rule of thumb in the post title must publish some massive number of papers per year. If so, I’m afraid you’re incorrect. Again, I only publish 3 papers/year on average. The reasons for that, even though I aim to have 2 in review at any one time, are (i) I count revisions and collaborative papers for purposes of the rule of thumb in the post title, (ii) papers in my field often take several months in review, (iii) papers in my field almost invariably go through at least one round of revision that often requires additional months of review, and (iv) because I’m not always in conformity with the rule of thumb in the post title. If (ii)-(iii) sounds really different than how your field works, well, it is! Different fields are different (I’m an ecologist). A rule of thumb that might work for some people in one field might work for few or no people in some other field where journals operate differently.
  • The fact that I only publish an average of 3-ish papers/year explains why I can afford to follow the publication practices I do despite only having one grant for $26K/year (not unusual for Canadian ecologists) and only having an average of two grad students and no postdocs or technicians. No, my lab is not a paper production factory with a dozen grad students and several postdocs all chained to the benches, funded by a million dollar grant.
  • If, based on the previous bullets, you’ve decided that this post isn’t relevant to you and you’d rather not bother reading the rest, that’s fine (obviously!). Thanks for stopping by.

If you want to get, or keep, a tenure-track position in ecology at a college or university with research expectations*, you need to publish papers. How many, or in what venues, often isn’t easy to say with any precision. But some. Further, how many papers you publish within any given time period is only partially under your (and your collaborators’) control. It also depends on reviewers and editors. When you submit, you often only have a rough sense of how long a publication decision will take, and what the decision will be. So how do you make sure that your own research conveyor belt is turning sufficiently quickly and steadily for you to meet your long-term career goals?

Here’s a rough rule of thumb that was suggested to me by a colleague a long time ago, that I’ve tried to follow ever since (mostly but not entirely successfully). Try to always have at least two papers in review. “In review” means “out of your (and your collaborators’) hands, in the journal’s”.

I don’t treat this rule like some iron law, and I don’t panic if I’m violating it (well, so long as the violation doesn’t extend for several months or more…). And obviously, this rule is silent on things like first- vs. last- vs. middle-authored papers, choice of publication venue, etc. But I’ve found it helpful anyway. It helps me to prioritize writing at the times when I really need to. It motivates me to turn revisions around quickly, since papers for which a revision has been invited don’t count for purposes of the rule. And it helps me focus on process rather than results. It keeps me focused on those elements of the publication process over which I have the most control, and so helps keep me from getting too concerned when an ms gets rejected.

Your mileage may vary, of course. I know this rule of thumb wouldn’t work for everyone. I’m curious to hear if others use this rule of thumb, or a different one. For instance, Meghan has reported that she no longer uses a rule of thumb like this, but that she used a similar one back when she got her first tenure-track position.

Looking forward to your comments, as always.

UPDATE in response to some discussion on Twitter: This post is emphatically not an argument that should prioritize quantity over quality, or for salami-slicing, or for pressuring your trainees to write MOAR PAPERS, or anything like that. Because I don’t believe in any of those things! For me, trying to follow this rule of thumb has always been a way of achieving my goal of steadily publishing high-quality science I can be proud of, at a rate commensurate with my other professional and personal obligations and with the expectations of my peers and employer. Here’s my publication list; you can verify for yourself that attempting to follow this rule of thumb does not lead me to publish an unusually high volume of papers or to prioritize quantity over quality. Also, let me re-emphasize that YOUR MILEAGE MAY VARY. If trying to follow my rule of thumb would just make you stressed, and you prefer to aim for at least one paper in review at a time, or not to have any such rule of thumb at all, that’s great! You be you. Different strokes for different folks.

*And if you don’t, that’s fine! Your career is your choice. Don’t let anybody tell you you’re failing or settling or whatever if you don’t aim for a TT job with research expectations.

42 thoughts on “The “always have two papers in review” rule of thumb (UPDATEDX2)

  1. Nice rule of thumb! I think I was following something like this without noticing.
    Would you recommend having an upper bound as well? For example “at least two but no more than five”, because, if by some weird chance all five papers return as Major Revision at the same time, there will be no time to work on all of them? (I currently have five under review, three as first author)

    • I’ve never had that “problem”, so haven’t really thought about it. But no, I don’t think I’d recommend an upper bound. It’s very unlikely that all X papers will receive decisions at the same time, even if they were submitted at the same time. And you can always get extensions on revision deadlines from journals.

  2. Interesting that you do something similar! I have followed a rule of having at least 1 manuscript in review. One of my friends suggested something like – have something in every stage of the pipeline (in prep, in review, in press) but it’s hard to keep up with all of it…especially the timing parts out of your control.

    I have found that I usually have more than 1 in review, if I include anything I am an author on, not just things from “my lab” but would probably get too stressed out if I was aiming for a minimum of 2.

    • I’ve also heard the ‘have something in every stage of the pipeline’ advice before. I try to follow it, mostly because different stages use different skills/energies for me, and I find it easier to balance this way. Since I work in an interdisciplinary area, I also try to balance the kinds of projects I’m working on; for those rare cases when I have more than 1 active project at the same stage.

  3. Via Twitter:

    Interesting. I’m curious how many people aim to have 1 paper in review at all times, vs. 2, vs. 3. (does anybody aim for >3?)

      • No, I don’t think you need to be working any harder! And in practice, your rule of thumb may not be so different than mine. Papers that have been returned to me for revision don’t remain in that state for long. I prioritize the revisions and am generally able to complete them in days or a few weeks at most. So if the same is true for you (and I recognize it may not be!), “1 in review and 1 in revision by me” wouldn’t be too different from “2 in review”.

  4. Via Twitter:

  5. Via Twitter:

  6. Huh, I’ve never heard this suggestion! What I aimed for pre-tenure was one new submission from my lab group per semester (counting the summer as a semester). That meant three new submissions a year. While manuscripts will end up spending various amounts of time in review, that would mean I should end up averaging ~3 papers per year from my lab, which I figured would put me in a comfortable position for tenure, at least on the publication front, especially since I knew collaborators would also be writing up things.

  7. Via Twitter:

  8. I refuse to copy into this thread all the people who are dunking on me on Twitter for purportedly telling everyone to adopt some impossibly high publication rate, or prioritize quantity over quality, or something else I *explicitly* disabused readers of. There are at least a couple of them.

    I of course knew that other people would have their own rules of thumb, different than mine, and that many others would prefer to follow no rule of thumb at all on this. Which is why I said as much in the post. But I don’t know why I bothered, honestly, since what I wrote doesn’t seem to make any difference to a non-trivial number of readers on Twitter. I really don’t get why person X would ever object to some other person Y saying, publicly, “I do [thing], which works for me but may or may not work for you.” But some people do.

    I note with interest that it’s only ever on Twitter, not in comments made here, that readers ever raise such objections. I can imagine various reasons for that. Among my hypotheses:
    (i) people are much less likely to comment here without having first read the post
    (ii) people are much less likely to comment here without ever having read anything else I’ve ever written
    (iii) people are much less likely to toss off a brief comment here to attempt to show off to or otherwise perform for their friends
    (iv) people are much more likely to comment at length here rather than being forced by the 280 character limit to express themselves briefly and badly

    • I think that point (iii) and more generous variants of it are a big reason for difference in discussion on twitter vs blog comments. On twitter, I feel like I am primarily speaking to my ‘followers’ and thus the comment is often a way to signal something about myself. On a blog comment, however, I am primarily speaking to the author. And thus, I am much more likely to engage with the direct (rather than inferred) content of the post.

      As a blog writer, the second type of comments are certainly more encouraging. But I find the twitter comments also useful to read because they more often point me to things I didn’t realize I was saying. And if I want frank feedback then I find the ‘best’ versions of that on reddit, where pseudonyms and the implied lack of commenting to the author (but instead to others reading) produces a different kind of reflection.

      • “But I find the twitter comments also useful to read because they more often point me to things I didn’t realize I was saying. ”

        Well, except that in the case of this post, they were things I didn’t realize I was saying because I wasn’t saying them. Indeed, after the first update to this post, some people on Twitter continued to tweet misreadings that the first update explicitly addressed. Or continued to attribute to me views I don’t hold after I explained myself repeatedly on Twitter. So it wasn’t (just) a matter of me not realizing how this post would come off to (some) strangers. Frankly, it was a matter of some strangers either not bothering to read the post before tweeting about it, or reading it but for some reason ignoring the plain meaning of what I wrote (which arguably doesn’t count as “reading”).

        “And if I want frank feedback then I find the ‘best’ versions of that on reddit,”

        Interesting. How do you search or filter Reddit threads to find good ones, or good comments buried within bad threads?

    • Unfortunately I think that anyone who consistently puts themselves out there on the interweb in the way that you do is likely to come up against twitter type controversies every one in a while, be it through misunderstandings, disagreements or whatever other cause. I’d just like to say in the midst of this one that I LOVE your blogging. I can’t overemphasise how much I’ve learned about ecology and the field in general here over the past four years or so, and I’m always looking forward to new posts. Just remember that for every flyby indignation merchant you have many people who derive real value from what you do 🙂

  9. Sounds pretty reasonable to me. IMO it would be esp important pre-tenure to have guidelines to ensure the writing gets done and papers get published.

  10. Like Andrew McAdam, above, I don’t have any rule of thumb and submit as and when I (or collaborators) are ready. As I said on Twitter, I can see how this might work for some people, but for others (myself included) such a rule of thumb would just be yet another source of anxiety that I wasn’t performing to the best of my abilities. That’s pressure I don’t want to put on myself, and so I don’t even think about it. I say that as someone who authored 7 papers/chapters in 2018, and 6 in 2017. That might sound contradictory, or even hypocritical, but if you look at my annual output it varies hugely, with some years having only one publication. Indeed I have a year with zero publications during which some major changes in my personal life were happening. And that’s ok, shit happens.

    What I’ve picked up from the comments on Twitter is that some early career researchers would find a rule of thumb like this stress-inducing, but others find it useful. As you rightly say, different strokes.

      • Yes, and I can appreciate your frustration with that. I wonder if, in retrospect, the title of the post would have been better phrased as a question: “The “always have two papers in review” rule of thumb – how useful is it?” or something similar.

      • In retrospect, that might’ve been a better title. But I think an even better one would’ve been one that doesn’t state the rule of thumb at all, thereby forcing readers to read the whole post in order to find out anything about it. Something like “Do you have a rule of thumb that helps you decide if you’re devoting enough time to writing papers?”

        But honestly, the only way that would’ve helped would’ve been by discouraging people from reading the post in the first place and sharing it on social media. (which might be a feature rather than a bug, actually…).

        I try to anticipate and address likely misunderstandings of my posts. But how I (or any author) is supposed to do that in the Twitter age is beyond me…

      • That will solve one problem, sure, but not fundamental misunderstandings of academic publishing embodied in comments about how you can afford to have two manuscripts in review all the time…..

      • One thing I’m curious about is to what extent people in various fields are aware that other fields work differently. If you polled cell biologists, or neuroscientists, or sociologists, or etc., what would be the distribution of their knowledge of how ecologists and ecology work? And same question for ecologists. What fraction of ecologists know that, say, in computer science getting accepted to present at a leading conference is the rough equivalent of getting a paper in Ecology Letters?

        Same question could be asked across countries within fields too. How many US academics know what’s different about, say, British or Brazilian academia? And vice-versa?

        I don’t consider myself particularly knowledgeable about how academics in other fields or countries work. But anecdotally, it sure seems like a lot of people out there think that every field in every country works exactly like their own field in their own country. So am I unusual in my broad awareness of disciplinary and international diversity in scholarly practices? Or (more likely) do I just tend to notice the minority of people on Twitter who think that everybody is (say) a US neuroscientist just like themselves.

        Hmm…how would one poll on this?

      • Interesting questions. I’m aware of cultural differences between fields because I work in a relatively small university that groups subjects into large faculties. Thus my Faculty of Arts, Science & Technology includes computer scientists, engineers, etc. Plus I’ve been there long enough and been involved in enough cross-faculty work to understand something of how different fields operate. But I agree, I suspect that there’s a lot of ignorance out there as to how fields work.

        How to poll? You could set up a quiz asking which statements are true or false about particular subject areas, that might be one approach.

      • I had the same thiught as to how to structure that quiz.

        Another possible quiz: ask people questions about how their own field works, and the same questions about some other field. See if people really do think other fields are like their own.

        Of course, when polled people might recognize and admit their ignorance of other fields. Possibly, people who misread my post didn’t realize their musreading was based on implicit overgeneralization from their own field.

  11. Maybe I should change our blog tag line from “Multa novit vulpes” to “Read the whole post before you tweet about it. And if it seems like the post is really bad, ask for clarification before you rip it on Twitter, because maybe you misunderstood. Asking for clarification only takes a few seconds, plus if it turns out you haven’t misunderstood you can still rip the post.” #imjokingobviously

    It would be kind of in the spirit of this blog, and of blogging in general, to have a tag line longer than the average tweet. 🙂

  12. I don’t disagree with anything Jeremy wrote. He was very clear that this is a rule of thumb that may not be useful to any particular individual. That said, I don’t find this rule especially useful, for two reasons. (1) It doesn’t correspond all that well to how people read/judge CVs. I think a lot of places have rules of thumb about how many papers you’re supposed to publish per year. If you are aware of that rule, then that seems like the better one to follow. You will be judged by “gaps” in your CV (e.g., years where you don’t have any papers), whether or not you did a nice job of having things in review during that year. If you like the 2-papers-in-review rule simply because it can be applied to the present (before the current year is over), well, OK — but maybe counting papers is not something that should be on your mind that continuously? (2) I don’t see how this rule informs other decisions that will help you achieve it. How big should the lab be? How many distinct projects should be going on at a time? Should I apply for this grant? It’s not clear to me how the 2-papers-in-review rule would help someone decide on those or any other important research lab administration issues. (Counterarguments are welcome!)

    • Re: your (2), it’s true that my rule of thumb doesn’t give you any guidance as to how to satisfy it. It doesn’t guide you as to whether you should apply for grant X, or how big your lab should be, or etc. But for me, it does alert me to when I need to change *something or other* about how I’m currently operating. For me, this rule of thumb is like a canary in a coal mine. It alerts you to problems, but not what to do about them.

      Not sure what to say in response to your (1) besides what I said in the post, so different strokes for different folks on that one. I prefer to focus on process rather than results, as a means to the end of obtaining the results I want (and that others want of me). But if someone else prefers to focus on results, seeing a focus on process as too indirect or too far removed from results to be helpful, that’s fine.

    • Also, this comment arguably illustrates the futility of trying to anticipate and address potential ways in which readers will misunderstand a blog post. You clearly read my post and the updates in the spirit they were intended, and went out of your way to say so in the first sentence of your comment. But you didn’t need the updates, and would’ve read the post in the intended spirit no matter how I wrote it. Because you’re a good friend who’s known me for decades. Even if you’d found the post unclear or horrifying, you’d have given me the benefit of the doubt and asked me to clarify before publicly ripping the post or me.

      I know that it’s the ambition of many folks who blog, or who are active on Twitter, to have broadly-inclusive ongoing conversations. “Inclusive” meaning, roughly, “anybody should feel comfortable joining in, and not degrade the conversation by doing so.” The conversation shouldn’t be just among a select “in crowd” who all know each other. Because that would exclude “outsiders” who are initially ignorant of the conversation’s history and of the background assumptions and experiences of the other participants. That once was my ambition as a blogger too. And I still think it’s a reasonable ambition for conversations on matters on which there’s widespread agreement. But I’ve increasingly come to realize just how hard it is for complete strangers to have a productive disagreement, especially online. I now think that “inclusive” online conversations among strangers who disagree are mostly impossible. Productive disagreement mostly only happens among people who know and trust each other well enough. That way they share enough background assumptions that they don’t have to constantly be clarifying what they mean, and they automatically give each other the benefit of the doubt when somebody says something that seems unclear or wrong. The best you can hope for, if you want to have “inclusive” online conversations, is for your self-selected “in group” of readers/followers to be large, and diverse on various dimensions. But you can’t hope for the conversation to extend productively beyond the boundaries of the self-selected “in group” who know you and trust you.

  13. My personal rule is to always have at least one in review. If I don’t, I feel like I’ve lost my wallet — it is more stressful than doing the writing. But this is for mss I lead or co-lead on, where I have much more control on the timing. I am always happy to work on interesting things with others, but I don’t count those toward my rule because they are led by others. As you note, it is important to jump on revisions (or your part if you’re a coauthor) so that mss are not unduly slowed by your neglect. We are often our own worst enemies in taking mss the last few percentage points to the finish line when we’ve already invested 95+% of the total effort required.

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