one hit wonders in academia

One of the more interesting questions in evaluation an individual’s academic performance is the “one hit wonder” issue. An academic, like any other producer of ideas, might have a single great achievement and produce little else in their career. And I don’t mean a big hit followed by a more modest stream of works. I mean, a big it in grad school or shortly thereafter, with very little else after that.

Outside of academia, one hit wonders present no problems to people who hand out rewards. Music fans just buy what they like, coaches cut athletes from the roster. In academia, this is trickier. First, it is often hard to tell if someone is a one hit wonder or not. Second, some types of research are just slow. We don’t want to punish a ethnographer, just because their CV doesn’t look like a demographer’s. Third, the tenure committee or dean may run into trouble if they suspect that the person won’t do much in the future. How can you fire the person who wrote a classic?

Promoting, or rewarding, one hit wonders incurs risk because professors do more than research. They teach undergraduates, mentor PhD students, do administrative work, and help out the profession by participating in conferences, peer review, editing journals, and other professional functions. Thus, we want sustained engagement from everyone who achieves a degree of stature, such as a tenured position at a reputable university. Also, a long period of inactivity may, rightly or wrongly, suggest that the person is not managing their talent well, or that the hit was a fluke.

In the end, I go on a case by case basis. If the hit was truly epochal, I’m happy to give them a job for life. A little deadwood is fine if we can get the cure for cancer in exchange. But that’s exceptionally rare. From an institution’s perspective, though, you reward people with an eye for the future. It ain’t like paying the guy who just fixed your clogged sink. You have to live with this person for decades.

Sacred Texts, Special Lives: From Black Power/Grad Skool Rulz

Written by fabiorojas

December 9, 2013 at 6:37 am

Posted in academia, fabio

9 Responses

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  1. The philosopher Edmund Gettier is probably a limit case for this phenomenon: he published a single three page paper early in his career – as it turned out, one of the most influential papers in modern philosophy – and hasn’t published a word since.



    December 9, 2013 at 7:30 am

  2. Within sociology there’s a fault line that I like to think of as the “professional vs. intellectual axis.” If one had to measure it with a single survey item, one possibility would be: “All else being equal, would you rather have a colleague who was super-smart but not very productive, or a colleague who was super-productive but not very smart?”



    December 9, 2013 at 10:45 am

  3. Relevant: Higgs (of Higgs boson fame) says he wouldn’t be productive enough for academia today



    December 9, 2013 at 1:17 pm

  4. This is a nice discussion. Are there any good examples of this phenomenon in our own field of sociology?



    December 9, 2013 at 3:12 pm

  5. (1) I agree with Jeremy about the axis of intellectual/professional in judgment of colleagues.

    Further, the post is obviously written with the silent premiss of a “professional.” How else to explain the idea that “one hit wonders incurs [sic] risks” because they publish little–instead of recognizing that they may contribute in really significant ways other than publishing–or that publishing little might “suggest” that they aren’t “managing their talent well”–instead of acknowledging that they might be “managing their talent” really well, and simply making different decisions about how to contribute?

    (2) @Jim: hmmmm, debating whether someone is a “one hit wonder,” “deadwood,” a genius, or peaked in graduate school. What could go wrong?



    December 9, 2013 at 4:32 pm

  6. Bellerophon,

    Sure, that’s possible and I can think of people who don’t publish much but do a lot of service. However as a general matter, if I had to bet, I’d say the smart money is on different dimensions of productivity being positively correlated, not negatively correlated.



    December 9, 2013 at 4:37 pm

  7. Gabriel,

    I agree with your argument but would supplement it in two related ways. First, I agree that there is a positive correlation up until someone enounters the inevitable limitations on time and energy that we all face. That is, we simply cannot all be perfect teachers, professional servants, and researchers at the same time. (Indeed, much of the professional advice on this board is a variety of “pick your battles and fight strategically.”)

    Second, if one person doesn’t fight that particular battle, someone else has to. (In more mundane fashion, sure, if you think that committee is unproductive or that student won’t pan out, or that colleague’s working paper is too stupid to help develop, you can walk away, but to the extent that organization operates, SOMEONE has to take time away from their research to do it.) Consequently, adopting the kind of imagery surrounding productivity suggested in the post encourages judgment and resentment.

    I don’t begrudge those decisions or the realities they represent, but I do begrudge looking at people who make a different choice as “one hit wonders” or “deadwood.” More generally, I question the unit of analysis: why not ask what the composition of a department has to look like–with people doing different composites of “brilliant work”–to function well as a whole instead of what it takes to be the most research-productive individual faculty-person you can? (<–Harumph. I guess I can answer that: "the market" and "deans." It's just disheartening to see this all stipulated as the premiss for a discussion.)



    December 9, 2013 at 5:01 pm

  8. Ha! I’d take being labeled a “one hit wonder” any day… one “hit” is better than none :)



    December 9, 2013 at 6:00 pm

  9. “Lazersfeld said ‘he’d had only four original ideas in his life’… No false modesty, though, Reed [Lazersfeld’s assistant] tells us. ‘After saying that, he added, ‘But that’s four more than most people, and three more than it takes to make a reputation.’ ”

    Jonathan R Cole, “Paul F Lazersfeld’s Intellectual Journey,” p. 315 in Living Legacies at Columbia , edited by William de Bary.


    kim weeden

    December 9, 2013 at 8:52 pm

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