New blogger Mrs. Comet Hunter is in the latter stages of her Ph.D., and she’s at the stage of trying to figure out how to break her work out into discrete publishable chunks. She recently wrote a post about the topic, and she sent me an email to ask some related questions. With her permission, here’s the bulk of the email:
I’ve been reading the Sciencewomen blog for a couple of months now (I know, I’m new to the blog thing) – and find it very interesting! I especially like your shoe posts, and “Ask ScienceWoman”. I have a suggestion for an Ask ScienceWoman topic: how to decide whether something is publishable or not?
I’m a PhD student in the last few months of my degree, and I don’t really know how one decides whether to publish results, when to publish or what to publish. Some people seem to publish everything they do, even if it doesn’t add to the knowledge of the topic. I know some people break up their project into 20 different papers, while others write one giant monolith that includes everything. What is the best way of going about this? Is it better to have many papers than just a few?
Mrs. Comet Hunter
Dear Mrs. CH,
In any case, let’s get to the heart of the matter: How do you optimize your publication bang for the buck from your PhD work? Do you go for multiple smaller, lower impact* pubs or do you go for one or two really impressive papers? Quantity or quality?
My first and best advice is to talk to your advisor. S/he’ll have the best insight into how your work breaks down into publishable units and the relative impact of those units (or a combination thereof). Hopefully, as a late stage Ph.D. student, you also have a pretty good sense of this, but since your advisor has been in the field a lot longer, his/her sense will probably be more finely honed. Plus, since s/he’ll likely be a co-author on the pubs, you’ll want him on board with your publishing strategy. If it were me, I’d go in with a plan saying something like “I think datasets A and B should go into a paper targeted at Journal X with authors 1, 2, 3. Dataset C should go …” Then refine your plan with the help of your advisor**
Before I offer any more advice, let me caveat my answers. First, I’m not in your field, and protocols and norms between fields may vary. Second, I’m only on my first search committee, so I haven’t got a particularly good sense of how committees weigh things; I only know how it’s worked out for me and for peers in a small subfield. Third, the optimal balance between weight and number may vary depending on what sort of job you want after your Ph.D.
In an ideal world, if your aspirations are a tenure-track position at a research intensive university, you’d get several high impact first-author publications out of your Ph.D. work. You’d also rack up a couple of middling author pubs from collaborations with other students in your lab. (Note: this may be very field specific.) When you were done with your Ph.D., you’d go on to a prestigious post-doc and get another couple of high impact publications. Then you’d have no problem waltzing into your tenure track position.
But let’s say you and your data don’t live in an ideal world. What’s the trade-off between quantity and quality. Here I’d say shoot for 1-2 relatively higher impact papers in very good journals in your field. With the rest of your data, assemble what you can into publishable units and publish it in appropriate journals. Then with any time and energy remaining, score as many co-authorships as you can, but don’t take on so many side projects as to derail progress on your first author material.
I think a reasonable goal for your Ph.D. publications is to have one or more publications say something significantly new about your field. After all, that’s the point of a Ph.D. Once that’s accomplished, you want to show people that you aren’t a one trick pony and that you also know how to build incrementally on existing knowledge. (Actually, what you are really showing potential university employers is that you know the value of a publication in the academic accounting system.) The co-authorships show that your contributions are valued in multiple research avenues and that you play well with others.
Now, as to whether a particular dataset comprises a least publishable unit or whether it needs to be bulked up before publication, getting to know the papers in a variety of journals (from high impact to low) is the only way you’ll figure out where your dataset belongs and whether you can spiff it up to make it shiny enough for a higher tier journal. Again, your advisor should be able to help you with this.
The great thing is, you’re to the point of your Ph.D. where you’re not worried about generating data for one paper, you’re trying to strategize how to the maximize your effectiveness. So before you go meet with your advisor and discuss your publication strategy, take a moment to pat yourself on the back for getting to where you are now.
Good luck, Mrs. Comet Hunter. Let us know how you fare. And now I myself will go back to spiffing up a project for publication.
* By impact, I don’t mean strictly impact factor but the way a journal or a particular paper is perceived in your field.
**Oh, those people in my session at ScienceOnline would be so proud that I just told you to talk to your advisor…