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.