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Generally, can a recent PhD graduate have too many academic journal articles (peer-reviewed papers)? It was suggested to me by one gentleman in my field (theology) that more than 4 might be suspicious, though other professors disagreed with him. I saw an environmental scientist say something similar on LinkedIn recently, however, which piqued my curiosity.

I am not thinking of people who might publish in predatory or borderline journals, but respectable academic journals.

This question is general – across fields – though I am asking from the perspective of academic theology, where most papers are authored by one, maybe two people. In fact, a few journals in my field do not accept articles by non-PhDs, unless endorsed by a PhD.

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It is hard to answer for every field, but I think what someone might be getting at making this statement is too many articles can seem implausible, and someone might:

  • Be publishing low-quality articles in predatory journals; or

  • Being given too much (inappropriate) credit for group-wide projects; or

  • For areas where the only one person writes a manuscript, seniors in the field know how long it takes on average to write a good manuscript. Being dramatically faster makes it seem as if you are writing bad articles (quick is easier than good).

What exactly that number is would need to be taken into context of the field, subfield, and the student's specialty. Someone who specializes in methods might end up on a lot of papers from their group. So an evaluator would have to read letters of rec and personal statements to understand why someone had so many papers.

You shouldn't omit anything from a CV, but it is easy to imagine someone taking a second look at a very long publications list.

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    True, though it takes so long for articles to go from submission to print that it seems difficult to have all that many articles from non-predatory journals.
    – David_Ave
    Dec 27, 2023 at 0:08
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    @David_Ave Which is why there aren't many people with "too many" publications. Dec 27, 2023 at 0:09
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    True. Then again, if the line of suspicion is only 3 or so articles when you're a PhD student for 4-6 years, it seems very possible to cross that line. Hence, my general question and personal concern.
    – David_Ave
    Dec 27, 2023 at 1:30
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    @david you need to distinguish whether you mean first author or any author papers Dec 28, 2023 at 6:08
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    @David_Ave I don't really understand your questions here. The whole point of this answer is to explain that having "too many" (as defined by your field and the time it takes to publish in it) can be suspicious because it might suggest some sort of cheating. So by definition, if it seems "very possible to cross that line" then you have misunderstood where the line is. The point is that having more papers than seems reasonable for the time you spent is suspicious. If it is reasonable for the time spent, then it isn't suspicious. There's not much more to it.
    – terdon
    Dec 29, 2023 at 13:43
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I think having an outlier number of publications at any point in your career will draw attention and possibly scrutiny. But as long as they are decent publications where you played a relevant enough role to warrant authorship, then that scrutiny is probably a good thing simply because it means more time is being spent looking at your application.

In addition to the other answers, here are some more perfectly legitimate reasons people might have an unusually high number of publications at the end of a PhD:

  • Some people get published before they even enter graduate school. Either because they had the opportunity to do research as an undergrad, or because they didn't go straight from undergrad to grad and had research positions in between. Faculty in my department generally try hard to involve undergrads in their research, and some of the undergrads even get to develop their own side project as part of that research.
  • Related to what others have mentioned about time spent in grad school, some people might get multiple publications from their master's degree, and some people do two (or more) master's degrees before doing a PhD. And again, some people don't go straight from a master's to a PhD and might be doing research in between.
  • Some people going into a PhD are doing it as an extension of their work. In other words, they're employees of a government agency, a nonprofit, a business, or some other organization. Or maybe they moved on from that employment but are using those connections as part of their PhD. These people often already have access to data and other resources, allowing them to sort of "kick start" their PhD. I've seen this a lot in fields related to natural resources.
  • Some fields and types of research are very collaborative. I'm an ecologist, and ecology is extremely interdisciplinary, which means people often have unique combinations of skills and expertise to bring to the table. For what I do it's actually kind of weird for me whenever I see a paper with only one or two authors. As a PhD student, I helped publish five papers across three projects unrelated to my research because I have some specialized skills that others found very useful. There were several other projects I helped people with where my skills were useful, but my involvement wasn't at the level to warrant authorship.
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I'll add to the answer of Azor Ahai -him-, that it depends on a number of factors not just the number of publications. The linked answer gives two of those factors, but another might be the time spent in graduate study. If someone believes that the number of papers is because you dawdled through doctoral studies, taking a couple of unnecessary extra years, then they might wonder about it.

And, on the other hand, if you are a pioneer in a new aspect of your field and have some special insight into that aspect then it might be completely natural that you have a lot of papers if others are beginning to see the value of that sub-field.

It can also be the case that in some fields the review process is able to move much more quickly than in others. It is difficult (slow) in math and high energy physics, but in theology it is possible that it is easy (quick) to judge the value of a piece of work and the arguments made to support a hypothesis/statement.

So, the result is that it is extremely field (and sub-field) dependent as well as the current state of the art in that field. Breakthroughs, in particular, can possibly lead to quick publishing turnarounds.

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    It is difficult (slow) in math - To perhaps clarify, even in math, it's not so unusual to have 4-5 publications by the time you graduate. However, if someone has 20, I will do a double take.
    – Kimball
    Dec 27, 2023 at 21:15
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    @Kimball, pure math, or applied? I'd believe it for applied but color me skeptical for pure math.
    – Buffy
    Dec 27, 2023 at 21:17
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    Pure (at least in number theory and combinatorics, and I also lump "accepted" with "published" for hiring purposes in my mind). I think this a newer phenomenon coming from a trend of more joint projects (esp ones out of summer schools and undergrad REUs etc) and an effort to be competitive in current job markets. That said, it's far from the norm.
    – Kimball
    Dec 27, 2023 at 23:57
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    Hmm, I'm a bit surprised that 4-5 papers (accepted or published) would make you skeptical. When I did my PhD from 2013-2016 several people in the same group (functional analysis) had around 4-5 publications when they defended their PhD. Same for a significant fraction of the people I know who recently got their PhD or are about to get it. I had a related online discussion recently (with Alexander Woo, I think) and I'm beginning to wonder whether this might be due to a cultural difference, maybe between the US and some places in Europe. (Comment might also be interesting for @Kimball.) Dec 29, 2023 at 23:51
  • This is why I asked the question. I was surprised to hear from the two mentioned in the original post that they would consider that number of papers suspicious--presumably because it would seem to indicate poorer quality papers (even if they are professional enough to be published in non-predatory journals) or because the recent PhD was uninterested in any teaching duties or university engagements. But it seems like most people here agree that these two people I mentioned are the anomaly.
    – David_Ave
    Jan 6 at 2:49
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Environmental science recent graduate here with MRes and PhD from EU and UK universities. I have one first author paper from MRes. 4 more first author papers in peer reviewed journals from my PhD and one more coauthored with other PhDs in our group. While I may have slightly more than average this is by no means unique or suspicious. At least not in my field and not in Europe. Never heard of such thing before actually. What does your "suspicious" imply? That I didn't write them myself?

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  • It seemed like the suspicion would be over whether the papers were of poor quality, whether the journals were lesser ones (if not predatory), that collaborative authorship was being abused, that research was being emphasized too much at the expense of teaching experience, that truly deep understanding of subjects was being sacrificed for more surface level understanding, etc. Again, this is my impression of the criticisms from those 2 professors I heard this from.
    – David_Ave
    Dec 27, 2023 at 18:29
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    You can easy check journals. A lot of those points can be addressed by checking where they published as no respectable journal would accept a mediocre paper. So if they published with a well established publisher that already tells you something about novelty and quality. Regarding co authorship, not sure if in your field it's the same but in mine it's common to specify who did what. So if you see that the recent graduate helped with edits on 10 paper - yeah dodgy. But if they did all the work - what's there to question?
    – Marvin
    Dec 28, 2023 at 19:53
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I believe that the LinkedIn post in question said in effect that more than 6 publications is suspicious after a PhD. I think it depends on the nature of the work. My PI was a brand new assistant professor so she was extremely motivated, as was I as her first student. I published 9 first author papers during my 5.5 year PhD program, a mix of original research and review papers. I also was co author on 2 original research papers and 2 book chapters, along with 3 first author papers during my Masters. I don't see how anyone can interpret this as bad. It was the greatest period of growth in terms of knowledge and skills that I ever experienced, and I'm grateful for it. As stated above by another commentor, numerous low quality papers is more of a red flag than the actual count itself.

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To be honest it is more about the field. I once received a CV from a fresh PHD that wanted to do a post doc in our group. I counted more than 50 publications in a series of journals I have never heard off. In fact, I tried to look at some and ended up in a non English website and with Google translate I managed to retrieve a few. I didn't read any of those but from figures and length it looked like a lab report... So basically this guy and his group were publishing like 20 papers a year in those unknown journals.

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    Ouch. That was the sort of thing I was thinking of when I mentioned "boarderline" journals alongside predatory ones in the original post. Those venues may not have been predatory, but they sound very...singular.
    – David_Ave
    Dec 27, 2023 at 18:31
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How many is too many? I think we need to clarify this first.

Because at place where I take a PhD study (Taiwan), they increased the requirement for graduation from 1 publication to 2 publications. And not included publication to waive qualification examination which can be another 1 or 2 (for certain program). Because most of the time student prefer to waive QE, they will graduate with minimum 3 papers, and usually have some more as second or third author.

Alas, it also extend their study period from "targeted 4 years" to at least 5 years up to max 7 years. So the speed their paper are published can also be considered before mark someone as suspicious.

If we only count by number, maybe at some place like Taiwan in the future, they will increase the publication requirements more to 3 or 4 for graduation in the name of competitiveness.

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    Well, I do agree about the oddity of the topic--but that was the main question from the get-go. How many publications is "too many" for a newly-minted PhD, granted field differences and presuming that predatory journals are avoided. Of course there are field-dependent expectations or even country-dependent expectations. Yet I still wonder if most fields seem to have many people who subscribe to this idea that there is a certain number of journal articles which are "too many" for a newly-minted PhD.
    – David_Ave
    Dec 28, 2023 at 2:48
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    At the same time, anjama gave a very fair answer which probably best answers both my and your wondering.
    – David_Ave
    Dec 28, 2023 at 2:50
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    @David_Ave If anjama's answer best answers your questions, and answers it satisfactorily, I encourage you to accept their answer.
    – Kimball
    Dec 28, 2023 at 14:57
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It's varies from field to field, but I have a number in mind for my field which is >6, beyond that and they are either publishing drivel in predatory journals or are making up/recycling data. Having said that, one junior faculty in my postdoc department had 16 papers out of his phd that he got the same year as me. I found out he had worked as a lab tech for 8 years before becoming a PhD student in that lab, so essentially did a 12 year PhD.

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Too many publications will draw suspicion.... and that is exactly what you want. That is the whole point. Your CV will make people stop, look, and examine. If those publications are strong, then congratulations, people will be wholly impressed and wish to engage with you further.

On the other hand there are a lot of mediocre faculty who are intimidated by high output researchers and will find any reason to put them down.

Focus on quality of work. If it leads to a large output, then that's fantastic.

My graduate cohort had about 15 people with double digit publications, up to 25+, in 4-6 year degrees (typical good degree is 4-6 papers in my field at the time). We all worked days nights, holidays, hung out together and encouraged each other. All of us are now faculty or high-level R&D. When I interviewed for my first faculty job, one of the senior professors pulled me aside and said "you expect me to believe you got all those papers in your graduate degree???". I was shocked, but it opened up a great conversation and at the end of it, he apologized.

So yes, it will raise eyebrows. But you want that! Because if the work is good, it will open up the door to discussion and allow you to showcase and explain your output.

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There is a way where having to many published papers looks bad. My immediate reaction would be: Why did the student not finish its PhD earlier? There was obviously enough material! Did he set the priorities wrong? Did his advisor use him as a paper press?

I think it should not hurt an application. Be prepared for this kind of questions. And congrats on the achievement!

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