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I am a student who will be applying to PhD programs next year. In my field it is relatively uncommon but not unheard of for students to have publications before applying for their PhD.

At this point, I have three solo publications. The journals I published in are all reputable, and range in impact from low to medium-high, with increasing quality over time (meaning that my last publication is in a higher ranked journal than the previous one, etc.). I can reasonably expect to have another medium-high tier publication by the time I apply (though of course nothing is guaranteed).

(I use the terms ‘impact’ and ‘tier’ to loosely refer to ranking and how these journals are viewed by researchers in the field).

I have an old manuscript which has undergone review in several medium-impact journals. Reviewers’ and editors’ comments are generally the same: the paper is fine (in terms of writing, methodology, and results), but it has limitations in terms of scope, which preclude it from getting published in these journals. The findings are still valuable and do offer a minor contribution to the field, but it’s simply not competitive enough to warrant publishing in these venues.

At this point, I can either forget about the manuscript, or try to publish it in a low impact venue. This would either be a low impact journal (though of course, nothing predatory), or a ‘working papers’ style journal (which is peer reviewed). ‘Saving’ this study and expanding on it in future works is not a viable option for me.

There is a similar question on this (For undergraduates, is publishing "weak" research better than not publishing?), but the difference in this case is that there I already have a relatively good publication record for my stage, and I'm worried that this publication would weaken rather than strengthen my research potential in the eyes of the admissions committee.

My question is: from the perspective of grad admissions (and possibly future career), would I be better off not publishing this paper?

Also if I do decide to try and publish it, will it look better to publish it in a low impact journal or in a ‘working papers’ journal?

  • Is it possible for you to expand the scope of your paper to increase its contribution, and then resubmit to a good journal? – beldaz Mar 12 '17 at 20:04
  • @beldaz Thanks for the suggestion. While this is certainly a potential solution in some cases, it's not applicable for me here, due to the nature of the experimental work this would necessitate. – Thredolsen Mar 12 '17 at 20:24
  • You have three solo-author publications before grad school?! – Matt Aug 1 '18 at 20:33
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What does an academic researcher do? They contribute to academic knowledge by (i) doing new research and (ii) publishing it so that others can benefit from it. You have an academic work that is not only completed but has already been peer reviewed, with the following verdict

The findings are still valuable and do offer a minor contribution to the field

So you've made a minor contribution to the field...if you get the paper published. If you don't get the paper published, you've engaged in almost the entire time and effort of the research and publication process, but without completing the final, key step of broad dissemination. Since the next thing you have to do is just resubmit the paper -- apparently without any change at all, since

the paper is fine (in terms of writing, methodology, and results)

from the ground-level perspective of what academic research is all about, it would be pretty strange to stop now. Indeed I do advise you to resubmit in a lower tier (but still reputable; there are many tiers of reputability) journal.

You ask specifically:

My question is: from the perspective of grad admissions (and possibly future career), would I be better off not publishing this paper?

No, I don't think so. Some considerations:

  • I strongly believe that completion rate of projects is one of the things that separates successful academics from unsuccessful ones -- I know some people who are brilliant and hard-working but somehow never manage to finish anything. Obviously you are not such a person since you have already published multiple better papers, but still you should be thinking in terms of the time you put into various projects and what the outcomes are. To work on something for months and years and have nothing come of it is a big problem for an academic. To be fair, to spend time on something that turns out to be mediocre could also be a problem -- it may be keeping you from doing better work. But that's a great argument in favor of choosing your projects more carefully; it's not a great argument in favor of bailing out on an already completed project.

  • I want to add that the above viewpoint is not universally shared. It is much more common in technical, STEM-like areas of academia than it is in the humanities: e.g. many famous writers have novels that they have completed and decided not to publish. (Sometimes novels get published decades later, and it gets very interesting: in some cases you can see why they were not originally published, and in some cases you really can't. Most of the work of Franz Kafka was published after his death by his literary executor, Max Brod, against Kafka's wishes. These wrongly published novels are some of the highlights of 20th century literature.)

  • My own field of mathematics is somewhere between the humanities and the hard sciences in its publication sensibilities. Many of the very greatest mathematicians publish much less than second or third rate mathematicians. Gauss's motto was pauca sed matura ("few but ripe"). I am in the same mathematical field as Andrew Wiles, the person who solved Fermat's Last Theorem in 1994 and recently won the Abel Prize in mathematics. He is 23 years older than I am, I have more papers than he does, and his mathematical contributions are immeasurably greater than mine. But "even I" do not publish every result that I get, and "even I" sometimes referee papers and see results that I knew how to prove but didn't find valuable enough to write up. However, I don't think that applies here, because you already submitted your work for publication.

  • In the current academic climate, the vast majority of people are served a little better by having one more paper, even if that one more paper is not as good as some of their other papers, as long it is still of sufficient standard to be published in a reputable journal. If you go on the research academic job market, you will be compared against hundreds of other applicants at every stage. In order to get a serious shot, there need to be some people in the department who think your work is very exciting, and having one more paper is not going to make much difference there. However, these people also need to promote and defend you against the candidates that other people in the department are very excited about. If it's between Dr. A in subfield B and Dr. C in subfield D, after a point it will be hard to tell an argument in support of the quality of Dr. A's research from a statement about the relative merits of subfield B versus subfield D. The department members who are far enough away from these two subfields are likely to take other considerations into account: if one of the two candidates has four very nice papers and nothing else and the other candidate has four very nice papers and two solid ones...well, it's obvious. So yes, even mediocre publications can work to your advantage.

  • Early in your career is the best time to pick up an additional publication that is not as good as the others. Most pre-PhD students in most fields don't publish at all. Most who publish one paper don't publish two. And so forth. Having been involved in multiple projects at this stage provides further clear evidence of your ability to do academic research. Twenty years later that is not so valuable, but it sure is valuable now. And the flip side: if one of your early papers is not as good as the others, it shows intellectual growth! That is an argument for not only resubmitting your work but doing it as soon as possible.

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