Background: I understand that academics have different styles of working, but in the same field, I would have thought that the outputs of senior academics should be comparable (and according to their extra responsibilities).

For example, the Editor-in-Chief of Nano Energy (impact factor 12.343) is the director of a research center. Until now in 2017, he has published 69 papers in high-impact journals (all with impact factors higher than 10). Many distinguished professors in the same field publish about 20 papers per year (in a wider range of journals) without executive or editorial responsibilities.

Note that my question is not about this specific person as there are many examples of academics who are publishing far more than is typical for the field.


  • How is an academic able to publish so many papers in a given year (e.g., 50+)?
  • Does this imply the academic is a genius? Or are there other factors at play?
  • 1
    Please don’t write answers in comments. It bypasses our quality measures by not having voting (both up and down) available on comments, as well as having other problems detailed on meta. Comments are for clarifying and improving the question; please don’t use them for other purposes.
    – cag51
    Commented Jul 19, 2021 at 15:37

5 Answers 5


If you look at big names in science, you'll see their name at the end of a ton of papers (in many disciplines like chemistry and biology, standards can be different elsewhere) and this is why: providing the money and the lab space gives "senior authorship". Usually they review the drafts coming out of their labs/collaborations, along with guiding students/postdocs at the idea stages (which is considered worthy of authorship by NIH/NSF and journal standards). People with big labs get to put their name on the end of every paper generated from not only their lab, but from their lab's collaborations and whatever their grants funded.

Of course, some people are just crazy productive, but it's more likely that someone with tons of papers is getting a lot of them through their large labs.

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    Is this practice ethically OK? Shouldn't a person who doesn't contribute to the research but merely provides the facilities, be mentioned in the acknowledgments section? For instance, why isn't the Director of my institute a co-author in my papers? Because, while he/she can, in some way, be linked to the process via my lab got put in place, he/she didn't contribute to the research that we did using those facilities. How is this case any different from the one that you mention in your answer (v1).
    – 299792458
    Commented Nov 2, 2017 at 7:03
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    The NIH and other funding agencies, along with journals, have authorship rules. Usually for authorship someone has to contribute some idea to the paper, or at least attempt. A PI at least reads over every paper by each PhD student and postdoc, and presumably has some input in it, and that alone is enough for authorship. The PI, when directly funding the research, usually follows your progress and gives some guidance, and this is considered authorship worthy. Commented Nov 2, 2017 at 7:13

Distribution of Productivity is Non-normal

In many industries and fields, metrics of success often follow something like a power distribution. Examples include incomes of sports professionals, sales of writers and musicians, publication output and citation counts of academics (see some of the work by Aguinis and colleagues on star performers).


Success leads to more resources: In general, the world rewards the best and most capable in a field. This occurs though giving more exposure in high impact journals and so on. It also occurs where success leads to more resources (e.g., grant money; collaborators willing to put you on a paper; better collaborators; better PhD students; more time to do research; etc.).

Ability is non-linearly related to productivity: In addition, writing journal articles for high impact journals takes substantial expertise. There are many academics who never publish in high impact journals, presumably because their research skills, available data, or whatever are just not at that level. In contrast, other researchers are able to consistently produce output at that level. I'd also note that this is not a fixed characteristic. People do learn and improve. But ultimately, high level skills and persistence are required to consistently publish in top-tier journals.

Publication Metrics

In general, whenever you compare the publication of one academic to another, there are a number of things to consider:

  • Quality of publications: The impact factor is a crude approximation in first instance but average impact factor becomes more informative when average over an academics portfolio of publications.
  • Field-specific performance norms: Some fields publish more or less, and related to the next points, some fields have more co-authors per paper, which makes it easier to get many papers.
  • Number of co-authors per paper: Some authors publish with few co-authors; some publish with many. A fairer comparison will often be obtained by dividing each publication by number of co-authors, and summing this fractionated total.
  • Weighting by contribution to paper: In general, with more co-authors, any one person's contribution is less. In many fields, the first author makes the main contribution. Thus, one quick way of fractionating, is to get a count of number of first author papers only. Thus, if someone is the head of a big group, which get their name on many things, this often won't transfer to first author papers.

Types of prolific authors

In my experience in psychology, I have seen various strategies for prolific publishing (e.g., 30, 40, 50 or more papers per year):

  • The many mid-tier papers strategy: There are some academics in psychology who pursue a strategy of publishing a large number of papers in mid-tier journals. These journals often have an okay impact factor. They might be Q2 or low Q1 on Scimago. Often these articles are a bit more incremental. The journals do have standards, but they are often relatively quick to publish in. In some cases, such authors frequently publish in a small number of journals that seem to like their fast-style. Such authors also often join the editorial board. In general, I find these academics are often fairly capable, but perhaps lack the depth of insight to publish at top-tier journals.

  • Big group strategy: Another common strategy is to be part of a big research group. Often it is the head of such group that gets on a lot of papers. But it's also possible for methodologists to get on a large number of papers. And more generally, you can often find groups of academics at institutions who work together. Most papers have many authors (e.g., 10 to 20 authors). In even more extreme cases, you can see some mega-collaborations (well known in physics, but occurring in other spaces) that span multiple institutions.

Aguinis, H., & O'Boyle, E. (2014). Star performers in twenty‐first century organizations. Personnel Psychology, 67(2), 313-350. http://www.hermanaguinis.com/PPsych2014.pdf


This community wiki answer was created from answers-in-comments.

The other answers explain mechanisms by which "normal" academics can have very high paper counts. But there are also some (very unusual) instances of people who are just insanely productive (and not just putting their names on papers where their proteges do all the work). For instance, Saharon Shelah; another example is Leonhard Euler, who wrote over 800 (singly authored!) papers. To put it in better perspective: "The historian of science Clifford Truesdell has estimated that in a listing of all of the mathematics, physics, mechanics, astronomy, and navigation work produced during the 18th Century, a full 25% would have been written by Leonhard Euler." Truly mindboggling.


They have large groups and a lot of cooperation. It adds up quickly if you got 25 people, maybe even postdocs, working together with you and everyone puts out 2 papers a year, which isn't that much in some fields. Especially if you have a lot of cooperation so your group does only a part of the work you can push out a lot of high quality work in short amounts of time.


According to my long experience in academic research, it is possible that you can accumulate a large number of papers at the end of the year by including your name on every paper, whether you have a genuine contribution or not, where the latter is the dominant tendency in academia. I’ve been in China for more than 10 years and I have seen tons of cases for fake Chinese professors who spend the whole year sending emails and begging other people (students, postdoc, ... etc) to include their names on papers even without having a quick look at the papers... This is, of course, a nonethical approach to science... In China this is quite common everywhere where most academic people don’t care about ethics.... the most important thing is the number of papers... Look at any conference (e.g., IEEE proceeding) and see how many papers coming from China... You will get amazed at the first glance but wait ... mostly useless and rubbish papers..... Moreover, Networking and Connection are important in that direction where many Chinese academic people manage to publish their papers in peer-reviewed journals through connections with editors and chief-in-editors where they are in most cases Chinese... I know many cases where reviewers directly keep in touch with authors, promising them to give positive feedback (no matter the solidity of work) on their submitted papers which is, in turn, will be beneficial for both... mutual benefit between comrades... This is the truth about academic life nowadays... On the other hand, exceptional cases are there everywhere (genuine researchers).

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