How many papers for tenure reflux redux

May 15 2012 Published by under Careers, Life

A little over three years ago, back on my original blogspot blog, I wrote a post titled How Many Papers for Tenure? [I reposted it here when I first moved to Scientopia.] This remains, I believe, my all time most read post.

Now I haven't paid much attention to my old blog for a while, but recently went back there to look for something I had written. Turns out the How Many Papers for Tenure? post had garnered a couple more comments. I was struck in particular by one:

Anonymous said...
Impact Factor and Citations are far more important. Quality over quantity. But quantity doesn't hurt.
Saturday, December 31, 2011 3:44:00 PM EST

Yes and no.


Well, actually, mostly no.

Certainly quality matters. So does quantity. Your tenure decision is partly in the hands of bean counters. One could certainly get past them with fewer than expected papers if the ones you had published made a positive impact on the field. Hopefully the letters written supporting you would make that very clear.

But Impact Factor and Citations?

No. Most emphatically, no.

It's widely accepted by all but some bean counters and the glamour hounds that journal impact factor correlates rather poorly with actual long-term impact upon the field. I've certainly read many, many society-level journal papers that have had a much larger, longer-lasting impact than many Glamourmagz papers. Sure, you don't want to come up for tenure with all of your papers, or even any of them, in sub-sub-sub-basement IF level journals. On the other hand, coming up for tenure with a single Glamourmagz publication isn't so good either. You want sufficient good quality publications to show that you have established a research program. One Glamourmagz publication doesn't do that.* Even worse, there are those of us that might think you're doing your trainees a great disservice funneling all of their work into a single high profile publication from which only the first and senior authors will garner credit.**

And citations? Puh-leeeeeze. Your tenure decision should ride on what you did during tenure-track. We're talking 5-6 years here, likely with most of your publications coming in the last 3 or so years. Hardly enough time for any but the rare immediate-large-impact publication to garner more than a few citations. The impact of your work should be judged by those who have been asked to write letters of support, particularly those within your sub-field, not by how many citations you might have gathered in a couple of years.

Focus on publishing X number of good quality publications pre-tenure, where X > the average number of publications the last few people in your department had coming up. If you land a Glamourmagz publication, good for you, but don't screw yourself over by focusing solely on that. And don't worry about citations. If your work is good, they'll come along eventually.

Next thing you know someone is going to suggest h-index as a measure of tenure-track success...


* And doesn't do your chances of landing a grant as much good as you might think.
** If you want to offer up the multiple equally-contributing first author Kool Aid, go elsewhere.

19 responses so far

  • Dr. O says:

    It's been suggested to me to maintain a regular but diverse journal submission record - some higher impact (high level society journals, not just the glamour mag pubs), others more incremental type studies. As my mentor likes to say, "They can't all be Nature papers."

  • This is a nice post. How about the things that will hurt your chances of getting tenure? Blogging? Outreach? Not going to meetings?

    • doctorzen says:

      What hurts your chances of tenure?

      1. Not publishing papers.
      2. Not showing you can supporting your research long term (in most places, this means you haven't gotten grants).

      In my experience, everything else is rarely an issue at tenure time, but those two things are usually examined intensely.

      • Odyssey says:

        What Doc Zen said. But it will be institution and department dependent. Outreach is variable. Not going to meetings hurts you in other ways such as your profile in your field. Remember, your institution will almost certainly ask people in your field for letters at tenure time. It helps if they can put a face on the name.

  • Clay says:

    I suggest junior faculty focus more on publishing enough papers to get their grant funded and/or renewed rather than being too concerned with their institution. High IF helps, but the "not very productive" critique by study section is a killer. Most institutions won't give an exact number of publications required because there are many factors involved in the tenure packet. Good advice to publish at least as many papers as the last person who got tenure.

    • Odyssey says:

      In many places, including my own, that approach is the best and will naturally result in "enough" papers. However, that may not be the case everywhere.

  • Postdoc says:

    "Next thing you know someone is going to suggest h-index as a measure of tenure-track success..." A colleague in my field got denied tenure by his department for exactly this reason. It was an excuse, they just didn't like him. Quantity of pubs (in decent IF journals), teaching, grants, service were all well within the university/department guidelines, but as you said, most papers had been published recently enough they haven't yet been cited much. Thus, the dept said his "quality of scholarship" was low.

  • namnezia says:

    "Good advice to publish at least as many papers as the last person who got tenure."

    This is the best advice. Period.

    • doctorzen says:

      This is advice that may not serve you well if someone in the approval chain has changed. For instance, there's new Dean, and he or she turns out to have a completely different set of standards than the old Dean.

      • Odyssey says:

        True, but you can at least point to past decisions if there's doubt. It's not foolproof of course. As I believe I said in the original post, ask and ask often. It's true that not all institutions will be forthcoming with a number, but if you don't ask you won't find out if your place is one of those.

        • Clay says:

          We use something called an SME - Statement of Mutual Expectation - which states what is expected from the faculty and what the faculty can expect from the University. The admin follows the "process" of the tenure chain, starting with whether the tenure pack fulfills the SME. Overall it helps shield young faculty from admin changes.

  • If you land a Glamourmagz publication, good for you, but don't screw yourself over by focusing solely on that.

    I've seen it happen to multiple junior faculty who started when I did.

    • odyssey says:

      I've only seen it really happen to one person here, but what a flameout that turned out to be...

      • Namnezia says:

        Although I know folks who have gotten tenure with as little as 4 real publications (by real I mean not counting reviews, etc.). And I've seen folks get denied tenure despite their 1 glamour mag pub.

        • Genomic Repairman says:

          We've got a glamour magger here who barely squeaked by with his one C/N/S paper but his lab is flailing and looks to be headed on a downward trajectory.

      • drugmonkey says:

        I saw one young asst prof pursue a Glamour Mag pub right off the start of the appointment. it was around the time I started so the NIH funding scene was....not horrible.

        never got the glamour pub. i think not many pubs at all, if any. certainly no developing track record from the new lab. no major grants came in. The person switched institutions prior to the associate decision. at the new place...still no GlamourPubs, no sign of an independent program. no major awards. seems to be under a bigger lab head, and is still listed as "assistant professor" so maybe the clock got restarted somehow on the institution change.

        this example definitely forms part of my current attitude toward the glamour pursuit, getting pubs going from the new lab and the relationship the pubs have to securing R01 level funding.

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