Last Ditch Effort

Nov 30 2010 Published by under publishing, tenure

This week, I present a question that some colleagues and I were discussing recently, based on a semi-hypothetical situation involving tenure-track faculty.

Imagine that you are in or near the final year of your probationary period; i.e., you are very close to being evaluated for tenure (or promotion in general, I suppose). You have reason to believe that you may not have enough publications, but you do have some unpublished results that you could write into a manuscript or refereed submission to a conference (depending on what is valued in your field).

[Or, if you are a senior faculty member advising a colleague who is in the situation described above, consider what you would recommend.]

Is it better to:

(a) submit to a non-selective publication venue or venues, gambling that the very existence of an additional publication or two is what matters most, no matter where they are published; or

(b) submit to a highly selective publication venue, gambling that the publication(s) will be accepted and that it's the prestige of the journal/conference that matters, not the number of publications; or

(c) do nothing, hoping that your colleagues, promotion & tenure committees, Deans etc. will be impressed with the quality of the existing work, even if the quantity is below the norms of your field.

Probably the best strategy would be a two-pronged attack of (a) + (b), as long as you aren't shingling and submitting the same paper to more than one place but really do have sufficient results/ideas to put into separate submissions of various types. The manuscripts do need to be (theoretically) publishable, substantive, and well-written (if possible) -- not just something tossed into the publishing maw in the hopes that someone will let it through and give you a least-publishable unit in time for your tenure review, so this discussion is based on the assumption that there is publishable material that can reasonable be put in the form of a manuscript or conference paper.

For either (a) or (b), you also have to give yourself enough time for the manuscripts to work their way through the review process: no one is going to be impressed with a manuscript listed as "in preparation" or "to be submitted to Journal on DATE" (my department/university ignores these completely), so you really do have to submit the thing(s). And even if you do submit before your tenure file is reviewed, that's of course not as good as having something accepted, or at least returned for revision (at the very least). Listing a manuscript as "Submitted to Nature, YESTERDAY'S DATE" might not impress others as much as you hope it will.

If your last-ditch strategy involves getting one or more peer-reviewed manuscripts through the review process on time and posted online so that it/they can officially be considered as "published", be sure to check on what the likely time-to-publication is. A colleague and I recently examined time-from-submission to time-to-publication (online) for various journals in our field, and the results varied a lot. I know that in some fields this is not so much of an issue, but in some corners of the physical sciences, the time-to-publication from first submission can vary from weeks to many (many) months.

I don't mean to completely ignore option (c). Perhaps your record really is good enough and you don't need to agonize between (a) and (b). In some cases, a few very high-quality papers are better than a pile of good but perhaps not-as-substantive papers. This is where a good mentor can provide guidance that is relevant to your institution and field.

And this might also be where commenters can provide some advice, especially if the academic field is mentioned in the comment.

21 responses so far

  • Alex says:

    As a theoretical physicist, I have the additional option of posting it on ArXiv to show that it really is complete and out there for the world to examine. Once it's out there and shown to be complete, the pressure to get it in a journal ASAP goes down at least a little bit (and in some sub-fields it goes down quite a lot). Which means I can try a risky strategy and submit to a top journal, because even if that fails at least the work is out there while I fight my way through different peer review queues.

  • K D says:

    So just how does one go about looking up time-from-submission-to-publication for various journals? It's something I've looking for more than once in my first year or two on the tenure track.

  • Jen says:

    One of my colleagues is up for tenure now, and went the safe-but-sure route this past summer to publish two papers. At his mid-size state university, quantity definitely counts more than quality in tenure decisions.

  • Kim says:

    I think that your advice to do both is great. Impact factor versus quantity is definitely institution dependent. At my small liberal arts college, quantity is definitely more important than quality (although high quality is great). But then research is important but teaching is MORE important-a different balance.

  • Joseph says:

    Things like this are part of what has convinced me (coupled with the ridiculously low pay and lack of real job security until you (hopefully) eventually get tenure) that academia is a poor choice of profession for me. Perhaps not surprisingly, since it's a form of teaching, and teachers are always getting ripped off. (My wife was a high school teacher, so I've heard the stories about how teachers get treated.)

  • Cindy says:

    In my last university, the department committee (chemistry) would have been fairly picky that the journal was peer-reviewed and of sufficient caliber. We were not a research institution but rather a 4 year primarily undergraduate university. Faculty were still expected to research and the "unwritten" rule was 2 publications for tenure. As far as the university-wide tenure committee, I don't think they know/care about which journal you were published in. We were such a small department and not doing research that would go into Journal of American Chemistry but there are other journals that carry quality science papers that would work.

  • Mark P says:

    In my R1 state university, its not about quantity versus "quality". Poor quality work is not going to get you tenure. However, it is definitely a mistake, unless you are both lucky and a superstar, to hold your work for "home-run" journals (Cell, Science, nature and the Cell and nature offspring). In my own field, for example, we'd be happy with solid, quality work in mid-tier journals like those run by the Company of Biologists or professional societies, and good work published in PLoS One would also be fine, if it were one of a number of papers. My rule of thumb is that five quality, solid senior author papers will usually do it. we have people expert enough in each area to assess quality, and the letter writers will also be able to do so.

  • MathTT says:

    @Alex: have you sat on tenure committees, and does ArXiv really count?

    I'm in math (obviously from my handle), so I post to ArXiv as well. But I'm currently on a hiring committee, and I am completely unimpressed with applicants that have seven to ten "publications" on ArXiv and only one or two that have actually appeared in journals. I know people who post a lot on ArXiv and it's not particularly careful work, so I don't put much stock in ArXiv papers unless there's a solid publication track record to show those will go somewhere.

    I expect that in my tenure case, ArXiv posts will be ignored in the same was as "in preparation" and "to be submitted on DATE" are ignored in FSP's department.

  • Alex says:

    I haven't sat on tenure committees, but I see ArXiv papers cited in journal articles. So I figure there must be at least some appreciation for it in the community.

    Of course a journal article is the best, but an ArXiv paper that gets cited is surely better than an "In preparation--I pinky swear!" paper.

  • Alex says:

    Or at least it's no worse than an "In preparation-I pinky swear!" paper. And it protects your claim to priority while you risk rejection at prestigious journals.

  • tideliar says:

    Not TT Faculty so I'm not sure...I guess a + b

    I do know some institutes are better than others about letting you know clearly what the P&T metrics are, and that friends in high places can help.

    My grad school PI went for option C and made tenure. I was talking to him afterwards and he said it was a professional pride issue, but he admitted that the fear and stress of sitting on data nearly gave him a heart attack, and that if he had not got tenure he would never have forgiven himself. He didn't recommend it as a technique... (but yeah, did it anyway himself...)

  • msphd says:

    I second the quantity votes. Everyone I know who was nervous about it rushed their papers into the fastest journals they could find. And they all got tenure/promotions.

    I find this kind of bizarre since getting a job in my field seems to *require* high-impact publications, even if it's only 2-3, that is considered much more important than quantity, even if they're not all first-author pubs.

    But apparently once you're a senior author, you can make sure your trainees only get low-impact papers, and it's fine!

    See the paradox?

    And re: that question of how you find out which are the fastest, you ask around. Colleagues who have published there recently are your best bet re: recent time-to-press. Some journals list the original dates of submission and resubmission on accepted papers, you can check that as another source of information on how long it really takes.

  • GMP says:

    I am at a large R1, field at the intersection of physics/engineering.
    To be a shoo-in for tenure in the physical sciences here you definitely need 20+ journal papers from tenure track alone. Papers in high impact factor journals (Nature, Science, Nature progeny) are highly valued, but well-respected society level journals are the norm.

    I think publication speed is extremely important, just by asking people around you can get a fairly good idea of how different journals operate. There are a couple of journals where I used to publish but will never again, as the editorial process is ridiculously long (e.g. paper sits with editor for 2 months before even being sent out for review, and another 2 months after it's back), which is unacceptable considering the journals' middling IF. I am willing to put up with longer wait times only for high IF journals.

    A prompt publication in a well respected society journal usually trumps spending a lot of time waiting for a decision (and usually battling with referees for a few rounds) from very selective journals. At the same time, if you never have any data that you feel are worthy of the extra time/effort and a high-IF journal, then you are probably selling yourself short. We also have to think about students and postdocs; they too should publish early and often, with a few high IF pubs but also a solid overall number. It's unfair to have a student or postdoc come out with only 1 or 2 papers (at least in my field) even if very high-IF. As with everything in life, it's all about balance.

    My answer to FSP's question (should you try to squeeze a couple more papers out before tenure and where to send them) would therefore be to try to send the work to a reputable journal with a short turnaround time.

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    I've participated in many tenure, promotion, hiring committees. Having something to show is better than not having something to show. A manuscript in progress is not all that helpful. One thing we ran into is that at least one major university does not allow doctoral candidates to publish parts of their dissertation work until after the PhD is awarded. I thought that very strange.

  • Bashir says:

    I'm curious about the designation "in press".

    When does a paper become "in press"? When the physical journal is printed? When the electronic version is posted" The moment the editor commits to publishing the paper?

    I would think that anything that has passed through the peer review process should count fully. Everything else is just copy editing window dressing. There's not really an issue of access, at least in my field, because everyone posts papers online themselves.

    • GMP says:

      Bashir, "in press" means the paper has been formally accepted for publication. I feel that it essetially counts the same as published, but sans the volume and page numbers.

  • C says:

    Do second author papers count toward tenure? Perhaps only under specific circumstances? If that is so, when?

    • GMP says:

      C, in my field the lead senior author is always listed last in the author list. So for tenure, papers where you as TT faculty are last and your student or postdoc is first author count as fully yours and carry the most weight.

    • Science Professor says:

      The answer is going to vary a lot from field to field. In some fields, if you are second author and the first author is your student or postdoc, that's great.

  • Published within weeks of first submission? Seriously? Holy shit. I'm pretty sure the norm in my field is at least a year. Getting a paper back with reviews in one month is considered blindingly fast; norm is closer to 4 months. Since the reviewers usually ask for additional experiments, how long it takes for you to turn around a new draft depends on how fast an experimentalist (and writer) you are. I'm happy if I can pull off a new draft in a few months. Then we're looking at another 4 months for the second round of reviews. If you're lucky, it stops there, but many manuscripts go through review at multiple journals before acceptance.

    So unless you're at the decision point described above 1-2 years before tenure review, there's probably no point in doing anything other than (c).

  • PS The field in question is psych.