When producing research, which is more important for career progression: quality or quantity?
Of course, the simplest response is both. But that doesn’t really answer the question. Which one is more important than the other?
Most academics would say, naively, that quality always trumps quantity. I say “naively” because an exclusive focus on quality will likely destroy your career. If you don’t believe me, go ahead and try it. You won’t last very long in academia. This is lamentable, in my view. In an ideal world, quality is all that should matter when it comes to research. But we don’t live in an ideal world, now do we? In fact, we live in a world with perverse incentives and impact factors and citation counts.
A career built exclusively on quality might look something like this: you spend the next 40 years researching a single research question and then you produce one monumental book. That book will likely be worthy of a Nobel prize. You will have produced the single most impressive piece of research on your chosen topic, with no one else even coming close to the breadth and depth of your study. But can you imagine trying to explain to your Dean, year in and year out, that you’ve not published anything yet because … wait for it … you’re focusing on quality? And can you accept that your h-index will be no higher than 1 after four decades in academia? Trust me. After a few years, you’ll probably be pushed out of academia because your career plans are misaligned with most universities’ incentive structures.
By the same token, a career based exclusively on quantity is also doomed to fail. Sure, you could publish hundreds upon hundreds of articles in “B” and “C” journals. I know a few colleagues who use this strategy. You might even build up an impressive h-index. But you’ll never be able to boast a truly quality contribution. Much of what you write will likely be “old wine in new bottles.” Your identity as an academic will be hard to pin down. You won’t ever be known as that amazing scientist who answered that amazing question.
So much for quality or quantity. I guess this brings us back to the simple answer: both are important. If you want my opinion (and I assume that you do, because you’re still reading), then I would say you should prioritize quality over quantity, but never sacrifice quantity altogether if you are keen for your career to progress. Like it or not, promotion and hiring committees increasingly look at your h-index to assess the “impact” of your research.
“If you want my opinion (and I assume that you do, because you’re still reading), then I would say you should prioritize quality over quantity, but never sacrifice quantity altogether if you are keen for your career to progress.“
One pitfall you must avoid is to put all your eggs into one quality basket. How many young academics on the tenure-track spend up to seven years trying to get two or three papers published in the top journals in their field, only to end up with zero publications at the end of the tenure clock? My advice is that you should always have at least one paper aimed at an A* journal, with the rest ideally spread across A journals. This will ensure that you have a health mixture of quality and quantity on your CV.
Prof. Andrew R. Timming
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