dude, seriously, publish

One of the most important things you can teach a graduate student is how to publish. While students can teach themselves the material, or learn through osmosis, most people need concrete instruction on the professional side of academia. And they need to publish early and (in many cases) often.

And it matters – a lot. A new article published in BioScience looks at the careers of academics and it shows that early publishers do the best later in the career. The article is called “Predicting Publication Success for Biologists,” and it is authored by William F Laurance, Diane Carolina Useche, Susan Gai Laurance and  Corey J. A. Bradshaw.

Summarizing their work in the website “The Conversation“:

We attempted to predict the publishing winners and losers, focusing on biologists and environmental scientists on four continents, using five easily measured variables. Our findings seem surprisingly unequivocal but are already provoking strong reactions of agreement and disdain.

Here’s what we concluded.

It doesn’t matter whether you got your PhD at glittering Harvard University or a humble regional institution like the University of Ballarat. The supposed prestige of the academic institution has almost no bearing on your long-term success, once other key variables are accounted for.

Secondly, if you’re a woman, or if English isn’t your first language, you’re going to face some minor disadvantages in publishing. The differences are not huge, on average, and there’s enormous variability among different individuals, but men who are native English speakers do tend to have half a leg up in the publishing game.

Finally, by far the best predictor of long-term publication success is your early publication record – in other words, the number of papers you’ve published by the time you receive your PhD. It really is first in, best dressed: those students who start publishing sooner usually have more papers by the time they finish their PhD than do those who start publishing later.

The take-home message: publish early, publish often.

This reinforces what we already know. In sociology, the lesson holds as well, but qualitative people need worry less about volume.

The implication for graduate training is obvious. If you aren’t actively cultivating scholars who are trying to publish, you’re screwing over your PhD students.

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Written by fabiorojas

October 2, 2013 at 12:01 am

10 Responses

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  1. Seems to make a lot of sense, publishing involves a lot of tacit knowledge and those who can produce goods are more able to get good co-authors, thereby learning more.
    I will make one obnoxious “I didn’t read the paper but” comment (only because my institution does not seem to have access, at least via that link): I hope the research domain is controlled for. There is quite likely to be unobserved heterogeneity when the research topic or method is quite unfashionable throughout the career (as Fabio has suggested race-related social movements to be if I recall correctly). Say, people who focus on history of co-operatives may find it difficult to publish much in management early or late in their careers.
    Finally, this is just averages that feeds certain preconceptions or prejudice. At least here in Europe we have some fabulous people who have done really well despite being quite late to get their papers published in the best journals. It seems that we may be increasingly forming opinions on people based on their Google Scholar profiles rather than what they are saying.



    October 2, 2013 at 12:19 pm

  2. Speaking entirely from impressions of how people talk and not from systematic data, I would strongly echo this point with a caveat. Grad students should publish anything they can publish anywhere. The energy and focus to get something published always looks good on a young scholar, even if what they have published is flawed. But post-PhD there is a level of evaluation at which publishing a bad article can be worse than no article.

    And as advice to advisers and professors in graduate programs, this is spot on: “The implication for graduate training is obvious. If you aren’t actively cultivating scholars who are trying to publish, you’re screwing over your PhD students.”



    October 2, 2013 at 1:21 pm

  3. In my experience – now as an upper level grad student on the job market – getting started early on publications is key. Whenever I hear someone say they are going to take an extra year in grad school to get some publications I think “it’s already too late.” These things take a long time to see the light of day and so you have to start early if you want something to show for it by the time you’re ready to leave school. That said, publishing early in grad school is quite challenging for a variety of reasons: not yet fully formed interests, lack of methodological sophistication, time constraints due to coursework/prelims, the black box of the publishing.

    Good mentorship from professors (and even advanced grad students) is the missing link that can help students get started early, especially being asked to come onto a project that a prof has in the works. I really see this as mutually beneficial; it reflects highly on profs to publish with grad students, it helps profs maintain an active research agenda when there is a lot of work to do, it helps grad students bolster their CV and hone their research skills, & it opens up the black box and encourages students to economize on their time. I’ve benefited enormously from good mentorship in school but my sense is that this resource is not evenly distributed.



    October 2, 2013 at 3:19 pm

  4. I’ve tried to follow this strategy myself. I haven’t published in prestigious elite places but I’ve been able to latch on to various projects across different disciplines and publish some sole and first-authored stuff. I hope it works!

    OW- I’m curious as to what you mean by a “bad” article? There are certain things that I think need to change in sociology, especially in how we approach certain aspects of some quantitative methods, but I don’t know if I ever encounter any papers in mainstream sociology journals I would consider “bad”. Maybe flawed or imperfect to some degree, but not entirely “bad”. Can you explain further?

    As always this blog is an excellent source of no nonsense information and I thank Fabio and comment-ers like OW (and many others) for doing young scholars like me such a service.


    Silly Wabbit

    October 2, 2013 at 3:51 pm

  5. It’s good advice to grad students to focus on publishing early and often, and I also agree with the advice to faculty that they ought to train their students how to publish papers. That said, I worry that as a collective we’ve overemphasized publication as an indicator of knowledge production to the point that the means really have become the end. The reason we value publications is because they tell us something about your scholarly contribution and because they are one outlet (although not the only) for knowledge production and dissemination. I hope that message is getting across to grad students too.


    brayden king

    October 2, 2013 at 3:56 pm

  6. I generally agree with Brayden–beyond the simple point that thoughtful, reasonable people might disagree with Fabio without “screwing over” their graduate students, overreading findings (from a study of biolgists) to pronounce on what the entire field of sociology should be doing in its graduate training reproduces the publication bias that (at least some) folks complain about. (For example, the recent post on the editorial from organizational studies about a culture of “production” instead of “ideas.”) Moreover, I find the emphasis here on increasing the number of publications grad students produce to have (to put it charitably) a tense relationship with earlier complaints that ASR/AJS are horribly overburdened with reviews/submissions.

    Now, THAT said, I think that a reasonable pressure to publish at least something in graduate school is (1) essential to getting a job in today’s market, and (2) a useful means to improving the quality of your work. For the second point, in addition, to bend OW’s statement slightly, to helping you learn how to finish off a project and get some of its results written up, one virtue of the pressure to publish in grad school is that it forces you to learn how to clearly express complicated ideas and to better formulate your own project as you go along.


    Recent Grad Student

    October 2, 2013 at 4:51 pm

  7. A model that I think works well for most graduate students is something along these lines:

    1) In the first couple of years, actively seek out opportunities to coauthor with faculty members. Going through the process at least once with someone who has done it many times can be very valuable.

    2) Be sure to publish your MA thesis and, as OW suggests, the placement of the article and the quality of the article at this stage are not things you should obsess over. We all need to start somewhere.

    3) Before graduating, focus on trying to write one really good article that has a chance at being placed well. In my opinion, the dangers that OW pointed to in publishing “bad” articles actually start coming into play for advanced graduate students. Of course, some of that depends on the type of job you are hoping to land. But your most recent publications will get some scrutiny when you hit the job market as they reflect your progress as a scholar (compared to your earlier publications) and offer a sense of what can be expected in the future. People can disagree about what constitutes a “bad” paper. But I think the ones that help you stand out in a positive way are the ones that display theoretical innovation and methodological rigor.

    4) Allow sufficient time to develop an ambitious dissertation project. Even if you do not publish from the dissertation work by the time you are on the market, hiring departments are really interested in the dissertation because the quality of the dissertation has strong implications for what your research productivity will look like in the years immediately after your hire.

    5) Some (successful) teaching experience can actually help you, even at top research departments. It helps reassure hiring departments that you won’t spend the first years of an assistant professor appointment trying to figure out how to teach, rather than getting your research out the door.


    Rory McVeigh

    October 2, 2013 at 7:11 pm

  8. About “bad” articles. One definition is an article you’ll be embarrassed about 10 years later. The younger you are when you wrote it, the more forgivable it is. But more generally, a bad article is intellectually or methodologically sloppy. This gets complicated, because sloppiness is sometimes excused if the ideas in the article are insightful and provocative. But a “normal science” type article (quantitative or qualitative) that has a superficial or formulaic literature review, cartoon stick figure theoretical arguments, data and results that are a minor variation of work that has been done before by others, and that is methodologically sloppy is probably a bad article, even if some journal agreed to publish it. Anything that seems like you were just trying to crank out a publication rather than actually caring whether you got the right answer is a potential bad article. It is my impression that departments vary a lot in how they read files, by the way. One way of reading is to judge people by their best work. Another is to judge them by their worst work, kind of along moral lines — if you knew how to do better, why didn’t you do better? That’s why trajectory is an issue. If you are publishing as an undergrad or early grad student, you are forgiven on the grounds that you are still learning.

    That said, there are still a lot of departments, especially outside the top tier, that basically count lines on a cv. I think I have said before that on my campus, people from other departments have criticized some of our faculty because we tend to publisher fewer “weightier” articles rather than lots of little articles. I remember pointing out (in the context of a tenure case) that a publication of one person was really three different studies bundled together, and talking to people from other departments who thought that was simply wrong, that the person should have broken it up in to three different articles so as to have more lines on the cv. So these issues get complicated by who is doing the judging.



    October 3, 2013 at 2:24 am

  9. […] “Dude, seriously, publish”… […]


  10. […] So, the take away point is: “dude, seriously, publish.” […]


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