too much publishing? seriously? is that, like, a thing?

A couple of weeks ago, Brayden commented on an essay by David Courpasson, which lamented the “culture of productivity.” The idea was that we often put too much emphasis on the production of articles, rather than the cultivation of ideas. At one level, I completely agree. The goal is to produce quality ideas. We aren’t paid by the word.

At another level, I am not terribly moved by Professor Courpasson’s essay. The complaint falls under the category of “first world problems.” The main problem, for most graduate students and faculty, isn’t that they are sucked up by an evil “culture of productivity.” The modal problem is that they aren’t producing anything at all. The underproduction of articles is highly correlated with not getting a job and not getting promoted. It is also a problem from a policy perspective. When we invest in students and faculty, we want them to be able to produce competent science, which is usually expressed in occasional publication.

But Professor Courpasson does have some important points that merit a response. One is that publication is adversarial, instead of cooperative. It’s about beating reviewers at some game. Here, I can only agree and add that the adversarial nature of reviews stems from limited resources. If ASQ, for example, will only publish the top 10% of papers, then the reviewers just need some excuse to “knock down” some good papers. If you want the recognition and rewards of the profession, then you need to master the game. Though I have never chosen a research topic to win some “game,” I openly admit that papers are written in sub-optimal (and often lamentable) ways just to avoid what I think are reviewer cheap shots. If Professor Courpasson wishes to avoid this game, I recommend that he closely follow two new(er) journals, PLOS ONE and Sociological Science. The former journal will publish all articles that follow scientific standards. The latter gives a simple “yes/no” decision, so there are no games with endless rounds of reviewers. Both formats reduced the “game” aspect of publishing.

Courpasson also complains about the lack of scholarship on power and related topics. And, I’m like, “DUDE!!! READ MY ARTICLE ABOUT POWER!!!! C’MON, BRO, PUMP UP MY CITES!!!!!” I’d also add that the reason that these topics are in retreat is that it is easy for reviewers to knock them down. For example, there is a very standard format for articles on, say, diffusion of innovation. But there is no standard for articles on power. Thus, it is harder to knock down a paper in the first genre. The “big” ideas that Professor Courpasson likes often generate controversy, and thus makes it really easy for a reviewer to write hand wringing reviews about how there are all these problems with the paper. So little ideas become easy to publish. Big ideas are left for the elder leaders of the profession.

Finally, I’ll address a related issue – over publication and the volume of research. Personally, I don’t think this is a real problem. While there a few great scholars who publish very little (Coase or Hirschman), most successful scholars tend to write a lot. Keith Sawyer’s book on creativity reports, for example, that in studies of novelists, famous authors wrote way more novels than authors from a random sample. Most of these novels weren’t great, but Sawyer makes the sensible observation that maybe you just need a lot of practice to write a great novel. Maybe better writers just make more ideas. Regardless, this suggests that we should be tolerant of volume. I do have sympathy for Professor Courpasson, though, since I’ve worked on journals. Big volume means a lot of work.

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Written by fabiorojas

October 21, 2013 at 12:01 am

Posted in academia, fabio

10 Responses

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  1. But in too many cases, search committees and promotion rules count rather than read. After some moves, I am in a department that reads. It is difficult to fault students who try to crank out multiple articles with just one idea (or one and a half, with the half being the lead in to the next article) when virtually no one ends up reading any of them. Or only some search committees do. Modal citations per article are down, density of argument is down, overlap is up (in my admittedly unscientific sample of reading). Only a very few of the articles all or virtually all students are in fact producing to get attention on the job market would not have benefited by another six months of thinking and deepening — but that would be a drag on a job market that is beginning to expect 2-5 articles for starting assistant professors, so I can hardly advise anyone to try that.



    October 21, 2013 at 12:29 am

  2. […] “Too much publishing? seriously?”… […]


  3. What Grouchoisis said.

    Also, production bias much? There’s another set of reasons that too much publishing is silly: it’s really terrible to read 137 different thin-sliced articles all making the same point across 37 different journals so that someone can game a promotion, job, merit-raise, or external offer. I once actually had someone say to me about a major article “Well, I read it, and it really could have been two articles. Why didn’t you split it up?” Well, because it was coherent as a single article, and I (perhaps mistakenly) thought people would actually read it.

    Also, the author of the post rather hilariously and ironically ignores the very problem that overpublishing creates: relevant articles are left by the wayside because of search (well, reading) costs. So not everyone can read every article on power. No one–not even the editor of the journal in question–can read or cite every relevant article. Lovely. So we’re all left to self-promote.

    But, I suppose, what the market demands, we must provide. Too bad no one on this blog or who reads it has any power to change the situation, even in a small way.



    October 21, 2013 at 1:55 am

  4. I agree with the first two commenters. The culture of productivity is real and it hurts researchers, especially those who fall short of the arbitrarily high number of articles expected by hiring committee, T&P committees, deans, and provosts. Even those researchers who can meet these standards are probably going to find it difficult to switch to research topics on less “standard” topics like power. Why bother doing that when you can pump out a couple of standard articles using conventional data and theories you’ve grown accustomed to over the course of your career?



    October 21, 2013 at 2:28 am

  5. @above folks: how would publishing fewer articles create more quality? Would authors then save up many years of work to write that one big article? Very often multiple articles which look like research notes really follow the progression of the researcher in understanding more and more about the context. How do you propose a junior scholar hold back sending an article because its not the next big thing yet?

    And yes, lets all follow the french model of social theory/social philosophy, and only attempt writing glorious 1000-page polemics instead of little bits of middle-range theory with empirical evidence.



    October 21, 2013 at 6:26 am

  6. @anon: You’ve created two false dichotomies and two straw men. First, the “opposite” of the culture of publishing is hardly “1000 page polemics”–nor is “little bits of middle-range theory with empirical evidence” necessarily a virtue on its face. (You’re very generously assuming that people publishing a series of research notes really have a coherent, additive, overarching research plan. In my experience, some do, and some are looking for “low hanging fruit.”) Some of the best middle range theory and empirical work takes a long time and high risk, and writing that huge polemic can be remarkably easy, quick, and bad.

    Second, no one is saying graduate students should hold back their research. What they are saying is, per grouchoisis, that often graduate students rush work out, and second, that often they overslice research in order to impress committees. The problem is that in an environment swamped with talent, committees can be biased towards the student who slices their work thin, and thus against a student with the same talent/intelligence/productivity/whatever who does not.

    Finally, a theme of frustration voiced in the complaints is that the discussion is overdichotomized (EITHER everyone publishes everything they can, everywhere, constantly OR everyone is forced to undertake dataless european navel-gazing) and at times deliberately myopic (since this is “the way the world is” you MUST conform to the culture of productivity to get ahead/noticed/be a good researcher).



    October 21, 2013 at 11:45 am

  7. Just to be clear, I’m not against people publishing a lot of papers/books. I’m thoroughly impressed by anyone that has a lot of good ideas and knows how to articulate them clearly in written form. I’m not even against publishing iteratively about the same topic. Sometimes scholars try to say too much in a single article. Cramming too many ideas into one paper may dilute the message. I agree with Fabio and Keith that you should publish as many of your ideas as you can because you never really know what is going to stick or generate a lot of excitement. I’m even for publishing articles in journals that most people don’t read (if you think it’s a good fit for your idea)! I certainly haven’t held back in writing papers just because I wasn’t sure if they were going to be the next great idea. I’ve published in a variety of journals. I’ve always believed that it is best to work on topics that you find interesting and about which you are passionate. If you are passionate about something, it makes sense that you’ll write a lot about it.

    But like Courpasson I worry that our institutions for determining academic quality have shifted too far to viewing quantity as more important than quality. I have heard of too many academic departments, some of them at formerly great research universities, that evaluate tenure cases based on the number of publications someone has had. Some departments raise the bar a little and say that a tenurable case needs to have a certain number (let’s say 5 is the magic number) of publications in “A” journals. This need to demonstrate quality through quantity is a big problem and leads to the sorts of issues mentioned by the commenters above.

    Equating knowledge production with producing lots of stuff is just wrong in my view. We need to have a more sensitive eye to what makes an idea important and relevant. We should at least debate that question when evaluating someone’s contribution to knowledge, rather than asking, “how many A journal publications does the candidate have?” Counting publications dumbs down the collective project of intellectual exploration. It cheapens it. I would rather discuss cases/candidates based on the content of what they’re doing, talk about how the field has received this work and how it has influenced others, and discuss the basic merits of a stream of research than evaluate someone’s “productivity” through a count of articles. When you think about it, determining quality through counting is actually pretty offensive. Think about how many hours you spend working on a single research project and crafting an analysis into something that people will understand and value. And the fruit of this labor is that someone can say, “yep, this person is a good scholar because they published that paper in AJS.” The ideas that you put into that paper have been reduced to a single number that people applaud. I’d hope that if we’re going to give someone tenure based on an article the committee would at least be able to say why they think that article says something that is relevant and valuable.


    brayden king

    October 21, 2013 at 3:44 pm

  8. is the evaluation of ideas. How should we do that, particularly when considering biases in human cognition. For instance, look at the work of Mahoney and others (e.g., Publication prejudices: An experimental study of confirmatory bias in the peer review system) on human’s tendencies to negatively evaluate work that challenges their taken-for-granted assumptions (see also the argument in Davis’s (1971) “That’s interesting!” paper). We all know that but people still call for “great ideas.” In my opinion, it is (too) risky for untenured researchers to go for such “great ideas”, because they might go “the hard road” to publication (see, e.g., Gans and Shepherd’s “How Are the Mighty Fallen: Rejected Classic Articles by Leading Economists”) that might end in being crowded out of the academic system.

    Therefore, I think publishing a lot (i.e., publishing “small” ideas) is a risk-aversion strategy that should be legitimate until researchers receive tenured. After that, I agree that going for “great ideas” should be the goal, because career risks are reduced.


    The basic problem ...

    October 21, 2013 at 4:06 pm

  9. […] problems in our research and publication culture. Other scholars have discussed related issues on pressures for publication productivity, the lack of social relevance in research, and the mindless obsession with journal rankings. We […]


  10. One PhD student was lamenting about the number of publications to me last week (probably having read the article). I started to think how one could be in this profession without at least trying to get one article published a year. It is just the thing we do: write out ideas and empirical research as papers. I cannot see how I could become competent researcher and PhD advisor if I didn’t conduct and publish a certain amount of work for others to read, assess, and build on.

    I know there are of course individuals who can spend years and years writing a single book (in philosophy and history in particular), and there are some movie directors who only release one movie a decade. Would novels or movies get better if we would have less of them? The optimal number of papers one writes is somehow contingent on the intelligence, creativity, productivity, etc. of the person. Would I be able to publish better articles if I tried to publish fewer? I do not think so, rather I would probably just lose motivation and energy. While that may be simply because I am not very smart, is someone suggesting that Pfeffer would have published (even) more insightful work if he hadn’t been banging out so many ASQ articles? Also, isn’t it quite elitist (and univocal) to judge what other people are doing as trivial crap? As Brayden noted, we won’t often know in advance what will be inspire others.

    I suppose it is a worry if the best research universities are shooting themselves in the leg by demanding such a high number of papers that even the smartest scholars are prevented from pursuing truly innovative grand projects. I have to say that the situation is pretty good in Europe, with rather reasonable requirements in nearly all universities.

    And perhaps those who have great scientific aspirations and belief in their own capabilities can start with a less prestigious university that grants more freedom and requires fewer outputs from junior scholars? Is this crazy talk from an out-of-touch European? Publishing the next “social psychology of organizing” or “transformation of corporate control” should be enough to secure a prestigious job, no?



    October 22, 2013 at 2:22 pm

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