Less is more III

3. Publication Record

I sometimes feel I’m one of a shrinking group who think that less can be so much more in terms of publications. But more often than not quantity is prized over quality – perhaps because quantity is so much easier to add up.

Granting agencies, tenure committees –  even your prospective in-laws – are all judging you based on your number of publications, how many are in high-impact journals, and how many list you as first author. In desperation, faculty have become ‘splitters’ instead of  ‘lumpers’ (and not in the evolution sense): splitting a research project into a few smaller papers instead of publishing one comprehensive one, so that they can increase their publication numbers.

A friend mentioned that a prominent US researcher only had 30 publications, implying that he should have more to justify his prominence. But quite a few of those papers have become key works that are cited extensively by other researchers in a range of complementary fields. Not only is he publishing in his discipline, he’s also contributing to tying disciplines together. So in his case? Less is most definitely more.

Supposedly this is what the h-index and other metrics are meant to get at: not just how many papers you’ve published, but whether they’re actually used in the field or if they’ve just become cage liner for the neuroscience lab rats. But too many people think that these number can tell us everything about a researcher. Even Hirsch, who invented the h-index, included a strong caveat: “a single number can never give more than a rough approximation to an individual’s multifaceted profile, and many other factors should be considered in combination in evaluating an individual”.

When evaluating a colleague’s contributions to the discipline, we should consider their publication record in the context of the graduate students they’ve trained, including what they learned and where they ended up. The talks they’ve been invited to give, the interaction they have with undergrads both in the classroom and on individual research projects, the way they play guitar in the evenings on long fieldwork trips or their ability to provide perfectly worded encouragement to colleagues at just the right time in their careers. Their contributions to science conversations – either in the office or at the pub – and their willingness to take risks to push the science forward, even if they sometimes fall flat on their face. Their ability to make even the most cynical member of the public see that this science is interesting and fun, and has the potential to move society forward.

Equating excellence in science with number of publications is disheartening, and presents a myopic view of what a ‘contribution to science’ really is. It turns away bright minds interested in more than just churning out free content for big publishing houses, who find that other contributions like blogging and tweeting, science communication, innovative teaching, and others – while much less valued – can be of greater overall value in meaningfully engaging non-scientists.

As scientists we can always talk to each other. But it’s the rest of the world that needs to hear us. So maybe balance off that stellar publication record with a few public presentations or guest blog posts. The value in science lies not just in the quantity of your communications, but also in their quality.

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