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Often I've come across rules of thumb about maintaining active publication record. The advice I've most often been given is that one should have at least two papers under review at all times? What's your strategy? I am in the social sciences.

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That would very strongly depend on the duration of the review process. At our department the "target" is 1.1 peer-reviewed publication/scientist/year. –  gerrit Jan 11 '13 at 15:08
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For what purpose though ? are you a grad student trying to graduate ? postdoc trying to get a job ? tenure-track faculty trying to get tenure ? In the absence of other information, the only real answer is: as many as you have interesting ideas out there worth publishing –  Suresh Jan 11 '13 at 16:40
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gerrit: in my discipline, the usual review takes about four to six months. Suresh: i am a grad student trying to build a cv that screams: i can do the job. i am about half way through my program, three publications under my belt. i am looking for a way to set up a rhythm. i find that the strategy "as many as humanly possible" is much too oppressive. sure, i can work around the clock and never be satisfied, but it seems more realistic to set up targets. –  Tam Jan 11 '13 at 16:52
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I agree that "as much as possible" is oppressive. Looking at community norms is helpful here. –  Suresh Jan 11 '13 at 19:03
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Maybe the real question is another one: when I am given a new paper to review, for which value of $N$ will the editor accept as an answer "sorry, I am too busy, I already have $N$ reviews to do now"? –  Federico Poloni Jan 14 '13 at 9:04

7 Answers 7

You're simply asking the wrong question. Your goal should be to do the best work you can, not the most — quality, not quantity. One revolutionary paper is worth far more than dozens of incremental papers that nobody reads.

To put it another way, if you find yourself submitting so many papers that you're worried about being overwhelmed, you're doing something wrong. Aim higher. Publish fewer, bigger chunks of work. Spend less time writing and more time thinking and digging. Stop just writing papers and develop a research program. The CV bullets will take care of themselves.

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Saying you should always have N papers under review is foolish. Say N = 2. You've just submitted a paper, and then a few days later, the other paper comes back from review with an acceptance notice well ahead of schedule (in two months instead of four). Does that mean you have to submit another one immediately, in order to have two in the pipeline? That doesn't make sense to me, as it makes your work subject to arbitrary deadlines that are orthogonal to producing high-quality publications.

You should keep a general track of how the work in your group (or your own work, if you report to someone else). You should also keep track of the general expectations of someone at your current career stage, and make sure that your publication output is consistent with your peers. (Don't worry about exact agreement: producing 80 or 90% of the total output is not really a big deal; producing 25 to 50% is likely to be an issue.)

Beyond that, however, you should focus on making sure your publications have quality, with a much lesser emphasis on quantity. One Nature or Physical Review Letters (or equivalent journal in your chosen field) article is probably worth a lot more than two or three publications in other journals.

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+1 for "look at your peer group to determine competitiveness" –  Suresh Jan 11 '13 at 19:02

I somewhat agrees with JeffE, but on the other hand it's not like one can just decide to write a ground breaking paper.

Having a steady stream of visible work is something positive to get a job, and one should neither publish dozen of small papers nor stall on a very important problem he cannot solve.

One way to get a good balance is to aim for a given stream of papers : if you get them easily, then try harder problem, if you don't, then maybe you should try something more manageable. Of course, what you aim at is very dependent of your field (and even sub-field).

I am in fundamental mathematics and personally like to have, at any given time, at least one paper under review, one paper that mostly needs writing, one idea to develop that could make a paper. In that way, I can focus each (non-absorbed-by-other-task-than-research-)day on what I feel like: writing, reading to back up the idea, do the needed computations, etc. Moreover, having a submitted paper makes me feel more comfortable trying things that take time but have a good chance to fail.

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it's not like one can just decide to write a ground breaking paper — No, of course not. But aiming for a groundbreaking result tends to produce lots of less groundbreaking but still interesting and publishable side results. Hence my comment "The CV bullets will take care of themselves." –  JeffE Jan 12 '13 at 21:42
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Or as I often tell my students: Pick a good unit vector, and good stuff will happen. Don't worry about the magnitude :) –  Suresh Jan 12 '13 at 23:27

JeffE's answer is excellent, and probably the most "correct". Nevertheless, as food for thought I offer the following anecdote from Bayles and Orland's Art and Fear:

The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the "quantity" group: fifty pound of pots rated an "A", forty pounds a "B", and so on. Those being graded on "quality", however, needed to produce only one pot - albeit a perfect one - to get an "A".

Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the "quantity" group was busily churning out piles of work - and learning from their mistakes - the "quality" group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.

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As many as you possibly can (as long as they are quality submissions).

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As long as this is within reason. At some point these are going to comeback from review and you are going to have to revise them. –  StrongBad Jan 11 '13 at 15:57

The advice I've been given for cognitive neuroscience is to (1) make sure I have at least one publication every year, (2) invest the rest of my time in high quality work.

The reasoning is that a full year's publication gap in your CV looks bad, but on the other hand, what people mostly look at when you apply for jobs is where you published the handful of your best papers. One or two high-impact publications are more likely to impress people than ten low-impact ones, but a publication gap looks bad regardless of where your best work got published. How many papers you should have under review at any given moment to fulfill this goal will depend you your research area and the duration of the review process.

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I think every answer here quite summed up the whole point but I would also like to add my 0.02$ on this issue. Before considering a "pipeline", let's ask what does it actually mean by a "quality publication" ?

  • published in a high impact journal/conference ?

There are gazzillions of papers out there in many good journals/conference proceedings but no one really cares about.

  • total number of citations ?

This may be a factor. But I have seen many survey papers (most of them are boring and mostly involve physical work) get a load of citations, but do not always add anything new.

On the other hand, I have seen a number of interesting PhD theses (I am talking w.r.t. pure Math/CS theory) that did not produce any "publication(s)", per se. But they are highly cited and pretty much popular. Even many of them are written in Russian/German.

The importance of a "something" is not always possible to be measured by some "numbers". Getting the attention of the community is a totally different aspect -- and that's what makes a "something" valuable.

Maintaining a pipeline with N number of uninteresting papers does not mean anything at all.

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