Friday, July 29, 2011

Persistence vs. Publish Pressure (PPP)*

An anonymous commenter on a previous post asks, "How do you balance persistence and pressure to publish?".

The big question I have is - who is pressuring you to publish?

If it is yourself, then the way I view all publications/research is: 1) What is the big idea I want to do, and 2) How do I best tell the world about it?

Sometimes, if it's a big idea with lots of pieces, you publish as you go. This is another reason why it's good to diversify your publication venue. So, when you're just sketching ideas out, workshop. Maybe you have some preliminary results, low-tier conference. Maybe your research is rocking the house, top-tier conference / journal.

Some people say, "Bah, least publishable units, growl." But it's not about that necessarily. It's about telling a story, building on previous work, figuring out where you're going. Instead of waiting three years and squashing everything into one paper, you keep the ball rolling.

Sometimes you Don't Publish. And that's ok too. For example, in the middle of my PhD I spent about 6 months doing exactly nothing. Nada. I realized I was spinning to far out into the wrong direction. It was time to retool and rethink my plans.

Now, if someone else is pressuring you to publish, that's a whole other ball of wax. I think in that case it's a question of what relationship they have to you (dean, chair, advisor, colleague, student), and whether their request for you to publish makes sense. Are they pressuring you because they think your work is amazing and ready for the world to see? Are they pressuring you because they think you publishing now will help your career later? Is it to help their career? It helps to explore motives here.

If you need time to persist on a research thread, drop the self pressure to publish and find your center. If you have someone breathing down your neck to publish tell them to lay off for awhile while you get your groove back. The last thing you want to do is publish junk science just because you're being pressured to publish for the sake of publishing.

* For the geeks out there. (See also: this shirt.)


  1. I had this professor/coordinator at university who wanted me to do my Masters thesis under his supervision instead of letting me go to an external lab for the same (where I badly wanted to go). He was incredibly publication obsessed, and seemed to care only about getting his name into whatever research outcome came out of my work. Confused, and appalled at his behaviour, I ended up picking another prof as my thesis advisor, who happened to be the other guy's ego rival.

    Fortunately, the new one seemed more than happy to co-supervise me with the foreign lab without any hassles.


  2. I've had a similar experience as Anon #1. My master's thesis advisor had this philosophy that was sorta like "publish early and publish often" and used to pressurize me to publish more often than I was comfortable.

    This was a bit of a hit and miss thing - on one occasion I thought there was no chance that our paper would be accepted to a (mid-tier) conference, but submitted anyway and it was accepted and received quite well! On a couple of other occasions we got our posteriors handed to us by the reviewers.

    In the end though, he gave me awesome recommendations for grad school so I really have nothing to complain about.

  3. Publishing is how academics communicate (yes as well as conferences and teaching but that audience is relatively narrow). You should publish when your work is ready, but that doesnt mean its OK to say 'I am not ready' as an excuse. Your job is to get it ready. Its vitally important to maintaining your ongoing career to publish good stuff in good journals in a timely fashion. From publication=proven track record comes grants, students, funding, labs which are the tools of an academic career. Judging when things are ready and where to put them is the really difficult part of research communication.

  4. @Anon 9:05:

    I think the point that's under discussion here is the habit of some advisors "forcing" their students to submit half-baked papers because of various reasons that have nothing to do with the work that being done. In my case, I felt that I could have had one great paper instead of two average ones had my advisor given me some more time.

    I do agree with you that there are a lot of trade-offs and external constaints here, however, I think that if a student is making reasonable progress and publishing reasonably often, then she should be the one pulling the submission trigger.

  5. Anon #1's story is sad -- despite the happy ending he/she is probably now pretty jaded about the academic process.

    My own experience (both as a student and as an advisor) is that students are often not that great at deciding when to publish. Particularly in systems where we do a lot of implementing and measuring before we publish, deciding when to push out a paper is a fairly subtle decision.

    Moral of the story for grad students: First, find an advisor you can trust and respect. Without this, grad school is worse than useless. Second, respect this person's decisions and try hard to develop sound publication judgement yourself.

  6. IMO, initially, the pressure to publish comes from yourself. You want to build your track record, get promoted or tenured, and attract good students and funding. The latter is particularly important as assessors will without mercy punish you for having a lack of track record. Moreover, it's hard as your team will be 'small' -- probably just yourself.

    As you progress, and gain momentum, you can go for more depth -- i.e., sit on a problem and solutions for a lot longer so that you can polish it to a point that's suitable for top journals/conferences. The pressure is off because now you have students or post-docs to help you.

    All my students have no pressure to publish quickly. The only pressure is doing high quality work.

  7. I agree with what you said.

    1) What is the big idea I want to do, and
    2) How do I best tell the world about it?

    Sometimes its just ourselves who gives pressure. If you don't know what the problem is then it would be really difficult to solve.

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