Producing a lot of research (without sacrificing quality): how not to suck in graduate school

In January’s blog post, I put together a meditation on what it means to be a successful academic. I received a lot of positive feedback on that post. However, there were several people who like the idea of redefining success as an academic, but stated that the ideas presented did not reflect their reality. It is possible to be a productive scholar with a strong sense of perspectives and priorities. This month I will get into the weeds of detail and provide some basic information on the day-to-day activities of being an efficient and extremely productive academic.

With current pressures on publishing a lot of papers in refereed journals growing every year, as if academics are simply producing widgets, there is a need to provide survival tools for this environment. I am a pro-science academic. To me this means that scientific thought, data-driven decisions, theory testing and improvement, and consistently making advancements and contributions to the field are more important than producing more words in print. As an editor, the most common type of paper I see are extremely well-done and well-designed projects that make absolutely no contribution to the field. Well-designed minutia is still minutia. More seriously, the pressure to publish a lot of papers has resulted in intentional or unintentional plagiarism, p-hacking, slicing data sets into least publishable units, data falsification, lack of transparency, and a host of other issues that not only fail to make a contribution to science; but actively diminish the quality of scientific thought and communication.

Publishing a large amount of work in the most efficient way possible does not necessarily mean that scientific thought and communications must suffer. There are simple ways to increase the number of publications that one produces without working 90 hours a week or taking shortcuts that reduce quality. In terms of writing and manuscript production efficiency, there is no better book than Paul Silvia’s How to Write a Lot. No matter how busy you are, this book is a short and worthy read on efficiency and writing discipline. I use several ideas taken directly from Dr. Silvia’s work. But assuming you are writing at maximum efficiency, how does one produce a lot of publications without going crazy?

I read that the average millionaire has seven income sources. I am not sure that this is true, but the concept is an important one. If your productivity depends entirely on you and a couple of students designing, carrying out, analysing, and writing up one study at a time; then you are necessarily limited. No matter how efficient your team is, this is only one productivity stream. This might be enough. You may have one productivity stream that produces all of the publications that you need. But for maximum efficiency and productivity, I recommend nurturing and developing multiple simultaneous sources of productivity.

There are many ways to do this and I will just describe how I do it solely for purposes of illustration. The primary challenge is to create a team of students and colleagues with expectations of productivity. My overly simple idea is that my lab will produce 12 major projects (papers for refereed journals, grant proposals, book chapters, grant reports) in the calendar year and that each graduate student is expected to be a co-author on at least two manuscripts submitted for publication every academic year. Every field and university has their own norms. In my field and my university, this is a fairly reasonable number of projects and expectations. Given that, what are my productivity streams?

  • Solo work. My goal is to produce a minimum of one solo project every year. Usually this is a creative, theoretical, major literature review, or book project. For 2017 it is a book to be published by Springer publications. One big project per year is the only expectation here.
  • Student work. Students in my lab are strongly encouraged to develop side projects that are independent of or tangentially related to their thesis projects. These are typically small scale pilot projects or testing some detailed methodology or component of a theory. This year I have a couple of students who are extremely independent and have developed their own projects with absolutely no input from me other than some copy editing. They will be solo authors on those papers because I know it will improve the probability of them receiving fellowships, high prestige internships, or faculty positions. However, most side projects have 2 to 3 co-authors and are the result of teamwork. We expect two to four papers to come out of this work.
  • Thesis follow-up. Students do their best work on their masters and doctoral theses. Master’s theses are usually one project of the scope to be appropriate for article for publication. Sometimes data can be reanalysed to produce a second publication. We tend to write our doctoral theses as three or four related publishable manuscripts. As these manuscripts are completed, we send the best papers for publication even if it is prior to the defence of the doctoral thesis. We expect 4 to 6 papers to come out of this work.
  • Invited work. One of the nice parts about being old and hanging around my profession for a long time is that I am frequently invited to contribute articles to special issues of journals, book chapters, or other contributions to literature (this does not count predatory and/or open access invitations, which I always decline and insist that my students do the same). I accept about 75% of these offers. I would probably accept only about 25%, but many of them are great opportunities for my students to co-author relatively simple and high probability of publication papers. In general, the criteria I use for accepting these projects are: I can actually make a contribution, I believe strongly in the purpose of the book or special issue, my contribution helps or supports a friend, or it is a strong interest of one of my students. Honestly, I do not like writing book chapters, but there are times that it is worth doing. Another confession, sometimes I write contributions to books because I get a free copy of an extremely expensive book and am too cheap to buy it myself. We can expect 2 to 4 papers to come out of this work.
  • Collaborative work. Quite often I will have a colleague who wants to work with me for whatever reason. Usually, it is when a colleague has one half of a brilliant idea for a paper and knows that I have the skills to write the other half. Sometimes I initiate these activities when I have an idea that is not fully baked and know an expert to help me carry out the plan. Quite often this happens with a junior colleague who has brilliant ideas, but may lack the confidence or specific skills to carry out a complex manuscript. This usually happens about once a year.
  • Specialized contributions. It helps to be fairly well-known for some specific and valued skills. As such, I am frequently invited into projects that are not really of interest to me, but the principal investigator knows that I have a specific skill that they need. For me, my specific skills are the ability to implement innovations into school systems, program evaluation, professional development in psychology and education, and integrating medical issues with learning and schooling. So I am often asked to be on a grant proposal or to co-author a paper. The best part about this, is that my actual contribution is extremely limited. I may write two or three paragraphs in a manuscript and become a co-author, teach graduate students how to conduct a specific type of data analysis, be a liaison between a school system and a team of researchers, and work on connecting medical and educational professionals. I may be third or fourth author on a manuscript or parlay my coinvestigator status on a grant to provide a little bit of funding for some of my students, but these activities rarely take much time. I refer to these as “glomming on” to smart people. My name appears on 1 to 3 papers per year and usually one new grant per year while spending little time or energy.
  • Special issue editor (a great pre-tenure trick). My favourite pre-tenure trick is to edit a special issue of a journal. Some journals are designed so that it is actually easier and has a higher probability of success to propose a special volume than it is to have an unsolicited manuscript accepted. If you have several colleagues with expertise on a specific topic, then collecting 6 to 8 topics and abstracts for related papers to propose a special issue is a wonderful idea. Here is why this is an excellent trick for expanding your CV: you receive credit as an editor of a special issue, typically you can receive credit for two publications (a brief introduction paper to the special issue and one full content-based paper), the probability of acceptance of the paper and special issues is much higher than an unsolicited manuscript, your friends who have contributed to the special issue feel as if they owe you a favour, depending on the publication you may develop a reputation as a leading scholar on that specific topic, and sometimes special issues are so popular and so important that a publishing company will invite you to expand on the special issue to edit a book volume. I did three of these special issues pre-tenure and it was quite valuable for producing a lot of publications. I have no immediate plans to use this production stream in the near future, but I may put one together next year.

We hope that all of the papers are of high quality and have professional and scientific merit. These are good methods to keep multiple streams of productivity moving simultaneously. The challenge is to always to keep these streams focused on a consistent and coherent research program rather than scattered. You must be able to say no when the project does not meet your needs. It is also clear that some of these streams do not work for some fields of study. However, the logic remains and is useful for almost every field, have simultaneous multiple streams of productivity always moving in the same direction. In this fashion, we can meet the reality of efficiently producing a lot of high quality widgets for purposes of accountability, desirability for funding, and moving ahead in your career.





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