Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Quality v. Quantity in Publication

Einstein says Quality not Quantity (source)
I was on twitter the other day (mwkraus, why aren't you following me?) and my twitter feed displayed a great quote from Albert Einstein with some important career advice for aspiring scientists: He said something like "a career in which one is forced to produce scientific writings in great amounts creates a danger of intellectual superficiality." This quote got me wondering about the career trajectories of aspiring social psychologists, and the tension between wanting to publish as much as possible, and wanting to publish only the very best research. I consider this tension in today's blog.

Now before I consider the tension between quality and quantity in publication, let me first acknowledge that this might actually be a false dichotomy. Specifically, it is possible that there are some researchers out in the world of social psychology who publish only high quality studies using stellar methods that answer interesting theoretical questions. I am not ruling out the possibility that people like this exist in the world. What I am acknowledging though, is that in my own brief experience in research I have had the opportunity to work on empirical research papers that I am incredibly proud of, as well as ones that I think maybe I shouldn't have published in the first place.*

*I won't out my crappy publications here, but perhaps if you follow me on twitter... (again, what is taking you so long?)

I can tell you right now, with a single reason, why I pursued some of my research projects despite the fact that I felt the studies were poorly designed or the results were uninteresting: Quantity of publication is an easy metric to use for evaluating job candidates. That is, a person with 17 publications is objectively more productive than one with fewer publications. And though most people would probably balk at the idea that quantity matters in evaluations of tenure and job hiring, I am sure it matters at least a little--I mean, what are people going to do? Read all your publications? I just told you some of them are crappy!

But what if things changed? What if most researchers focused on quality over quantity? Would this sort of pursuit change the landscape of social psychology? Here are four positive changes that I think would happen as a result of this shift toward quality:

I. Better Research Methods
One of the most positive consequences of a focus on quality would be a shift toward better research methods. If researchers only pursue a few research ideas at a time, then those research questions must be ones that the researchers are prepared to answer definitively and with precision. Hence, a focus on quality motivates researchers to run well-designed studies (go here to learn a little about what I mean by well-designed). This is one of the most positive consequences of a focus on quality, particularly since science has a recent credibility problem.

II. Fewer Graduate Students
I come from a large lab of graduate students where each individual student acted like a corporate CEO of their own research program. Each of us independently pursued our own program of research and we were given freedom to do so by our academic adviser. This approach can be exciting for a new graduate student, but it also can lead to a bunch of avoidable errors in early research design--given that you are new at research, and as such, don't exactly know what the heck you're doing. A focus on research quality would mean that faculty probably need to spend more time in one-on-one training with their graduate students, to help them develop the tools for excellent research design. This might also be a positive change for the field, given that there aren't jobs available for all the PhD students in social psychology.

III. The Field Would Slow Down
I'm sure that right after reading this blog post, everyone will be picking up their print copy of the June issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology and will read it from cover to cover, that is, right after reading this month's PSPB and JESP. I bet we all just let out an audible chuckle at that last statement. I'm not a robot, and so for me It's near impossible to keep up with changes in our field. Part of the rapid speed with which social psychology travels is attributable to advances in technology--I don't use punch cards for my statistical analyses. Another part of the speed increase involves the push for quantity, sometimes at the expense of quality. A focus on quality would decrease the number of publications in journals and would decrease the number of articles that editors and reviewers must review for the field. All good news for those of us terrorized by reviewer deadlines.

IV. Careers Based Less On Quantity
Even a focus on quality would still mean that researchers will have more contributions in their career if they are more productive. However, a shift toward quality might mean that one's career should be evaluated not by the number of publications or one's total citations. Rather, a career should be evaluated by the contribution of a few key pieces of research developed over one's entire career. This is consistent with how history remembers one's research. After all, Stephen Hawking isn't known for the sheer number of his papers, instead, he is known for that popular theory that spawned a hit TV show on CBS! I could see my own career, thirty years from now, being evaluated by one or two papers that I've written. That's probably a better metric of my intellectual contribution to the history of the field than say the handful of citations generated from twenty or so of my least popular publications. Of course, it's hard to evaluate the gravity of contributions in one or two key pieces of research, but it might be worth thinking about exactly how to do that moving forward.

I'm sure there are other consequences, some of them negative, that I haven't brought up. I wonder what you think about the state of social psychology and whether a focus on quality would solve some of the challenges in our field?


  1. I agree with you (though I'm not in psych). I've often thought that limiting people to one main publication a year would result in less junk publications.

  2. Mayo's comment seems to me to be about right, but I would instead say 2, or maybe even 3, not 1. Sometimes, a researcher issues 2 important publications in the same year. At the outermost limit, I might even admit the possibility of 3, inasmuch as the researcher doesn't control the publication-date.

    Setting that limit would also reduce co-authoring. This would be good, because almost all great works are solo-created. Assistants can be mentioned in acknowledgments, so that only main authors receive authorship-credit.