What is the best publication strategy in science?
Young scientists often get conflicting advice on how they should publish. Every generation of young scientists has to address similar questions: Should I publish several smaller papers or focus on one big paper with a high impact factor? What is the effect of my publication strategy on my scientific career and the possibility of raising grant money? How important is my publication list for a non-academic career?
- It is absolutely crucial to know which career you want
- If you want to become a professor, your publication list is the most critical asset
- In the industry sector, your publication list shows your commitment and expertise
- If you want a job outside of research, your publication list may even be counterproductive
- What are low and high impact factors?
- Choosing the right journal and publication type
- Try to predict the editorial strategy
- Be cautious of predatory journals!
- Use your social media and online presence to your advantage
- Make all contributors happy
- Create publication titles that raise the interest of the reader
- Balancing quantity and quality: the number of publications
- My supervisor and I have differing publication strategies
- My supervisor forces me to publish small papers
- My supervisor forces me to publish big papers
- I lost my first author position
- Should I aim for multiple co-authorships?
- Should I aim for co-authorships on high-impact papers?
- Should I aim for a very long list of low-impact papers?
- Develop a publishing strategy depending on your career goals!
- I do not know which career I want!
- When in doubt – publish high!
- Frequently asked questions (FAQ)
- Recommended reading
To develop the optimal publication strategy for you, it is absolutely crucial to know which career you want
Do you want to become a university professor or administrative staff member? It is smart to make an early career choice about whether you should become a professor. Otherwise, you may waste a lot of time and energy pursuing the wrong career path. Or do you envision a career in the industry or the public health sector?
Most PhD students and many postdocs have no clear idea about their future careers. About 90-95% of all PhD holders find a job outside academia. Still, most postdocs (up to 75%) wish to pursue an academic career (although the statistics clearly indicate that more than 90% will find a job elsewhere). Read more here: How to find your dream job in science
If you want to become a professor, your publication list is the most critical asset
To pursue a career as a professor, you must aim for an ‘excellent’ publication list. The definition of ‘excellence’ differs in every domain. Writing one big book is more important than publishing many papers in some faculties. In other domains, conference proceedings are the main and most crucial output, while in life sciences, publications with high impact factors and many citations are valued most.
If you decide to pursue an academic career, learning how to write your articles faster and more professionally is essential.
However, many universities also request other qualifications such as excellence in teaching, international mobility, and success with getting grants. Read more here: Should I become a professor?
If you want a job in the industry sector, your publication list is helpful to show your commitment and expertise
Your publication list may be helpful if you want to find a job in the pharmaceutical industry. However, this list is often of secondary importance, and the technical and transferable skills you have learned are much more valued.
Companies typically look for ambitious and highly qualified young scientists who have experience in specific techniques and who may be potential group leaders. Your publications show that you are ambitious and can finish projects successfully.
If you want a corporate career or wish to become an entrepreneur, you must subsequently acquire essential skills to become a leader. Read more here: How to create a leadership action plan.
Read the following article on how to get relevant information on which skills are needed in the sector you wish to work in: How to find your dream job in science.
If you want a job outside of research, your publication list may even be counterproductive
For many jobs, an impressive publication list may even be a disadvantage because it may create the impression that you have already “lived too long in the academic ivory tower.”
It may also mean that you desperately tried to pursue an academic career without success, and now you have to find something else, which is your second choice. Thus, for your career planning, you should consider how long it takes to finish your doctorate and how long you should be a postdoc.
What are low and high impact factors?
It is a notoriously difficult debate about what ‘low’ and ‘high’ impact factors are. In some domains, the best journals have an impact factor below 4; in others, the best journals can be above 20 (e. g., Nature Immunology).
As a rule of thumb, I would suggest the following arbitrary classification, which I have seen being used in several commissions for biomedical sciences in Europe: < 1: too low, 1-3: low, 3-5: intermediate, 5-10: high, > 10: excellent.
Choosing the right journal and publication type
Learning this took me a long time, but it is one of the most convincing strategies to get more papers published in better journals: You must identify the right journal for your research project. Thus, you must understand the scope of each journal to match your research area and research findings with the journal’s focus and target audience.
Try to predict the editorial strategy
Unfortunately, the information in a journal’s website’s “scope” section can be misleading. You must check carefully whether the journal has published articles similar to your current study during the last 3 years. If not, probably your chances are low.
For example, if you want to submit an animal study but the specific journal has only published human studies in the last 5years, you probably have no chance. If you have performed studies with human organoids in vitro, a clinical journal is not the right choice. For healthcare professionals, journals focusing on clinical trials, medical devices, or new pharmaceutical drugs might be the best fit. You get the point.
Be cautious of predatory journals!
Don’t fall for predatory publishers! Peer-reviewed journals are usually the safest bet for quality. Thus, they must have a peer review process of high quality. Always opt for well-known academic journals indexed in reputable databases like Google Scholar, Web of Science, or Scopus.
To protect yourself, do some safety checks before you submit a paper. Check the white lists of trustworthy journals and publishers available on the internet – or at least google the journal name and the term “predatory” to see whether something comes up.
Open access publishing allows a wide audience to access your work without a paywall, enhancing the impact of your research. However, open-access publishing is a big business and attracts many unethical persons.
Thus, it is not a sufficient quality criterion if a journal is listed in directories like the Directory of Open Access Journals or Directory of Open Access Books if you’re considering publishing book chapters. Always google the publisher and journal name and the term “predatory” to see whether something comes up.
Use your social media and online presence to your advantage
To pursue a successful career in science, you should develop scientific independence and become an expert in your field. To increase the visibility of your work, you should increase the impact factor of your publications. Although impact factors are heavily criticized as a measurement of scientific quality, there is still no convincing better alternative available. Thus, impact factors still get used to evaluate your performance.
In addition, your citation score (i.e., how often your papers are cited by other authors) becomes increasingly important as your career advances. Thus, you should increase the number of citations.
For example, use your online and social media presence to disseminate your scientific publications. Online platforms are valuable tools for sharing research results and new knowledge with key opinion leaders, healthcare professionals, and the general public, leading to broader public debates. Your online presence can make your work more visible and attract potential audiences.
Make all contributors happy
Understanding publishing politics and publication ethics is paramount, especially for early-career researchers and new PhD students. Make sure that everyone who made a substantial contribution is credited, and always comply with the copyright policies of the journal you submit to. The impact of your research can be significantly affected by ethical lapses.
Create publication titles that raise the interest of the reader
Choosing compelling publication titles and writing a compelling abstract is crucial. Your title should be concise and encapsulate your paper’s key message but should also raise readers’ interest.
New researchers often are unaware of the marketing aspects of publishing. Editors are keen to get more clicks and social media shares for their journals’ articles. These are strategic decisions to increase the visibility of their journal.
Similarly, write compelling abstract titles when presenting your work at scientific meetings. It attracts more visitors to your posters or talks. Among these, potential collaborators or representatives of pharmaceutical companies might be interested in developing new drugs based on your findings.
Balancing quantity and quality: the number of publications
For early-career researchers, the number of publications may often seem like the end-all measure of success. While quantity does matter to some extent, the prestige and impact factor of your particular publications are just as important. Consider carefully how many co-authorships you pursue compared to first or last authorships, which have much more value. In addition, do not overestimate the value of co-authorships on high-impact papers.
My supervisor and I have differing publication strategies
If your supervisor wants a different publication strategy than you, then there are sometimes possibilities to negotiate. It would be best to do this early to avoid authorship disputes.
Depending on the personality types of your supervisors, they may be open to a different approach if you deliver good results. You must know what they expect from you as ‘good results.’ Often an open discussion can clarify this quickly.
My supervisor forces me to publish small papers
Sometimes young scientists are delusional about the possibility of publishing very high, and their supervisor does not want to waste money and time on a ‘lost case.’ When the supervisor seeks to stop or finish the project, usually, it is good advice to accept this decision and focus on the next project.
In my experience, the supervisors always win because they provide the grant money and the infrastructure and can limit access.
Some supervisors simply do not want to increase the impact factor of their publications because they lack ambition or are convinced that they do not have the capacity to get higher or publish in a niche with traditionally low impact factors.
Thus, a young scientist may end up running against psychological walls. Some young scientists are incredibly ambitious and bring a project to a new level, even above the average publication level of the group. However, I would consider this an exception. Most supervisors are grateful for such a success and will interpret it as a result of their excellent leadership.
My supervisor forces me to publish big papers
Publishing big papers with high impact factors has several advantages and disadvantages for young scientists. The benefits are clear: a high-impact publication as first or last author (even as equally contributing second or last-before-last author) can greatly boost your career in science. Unfortunately, a big paper is often prepared over many years, including the work of several young scientists who cannot all become first authors. Publications with three or more equally contributing first authors and two or three equally contributing senior authors are frequently seen.
In my experience, the value of an authorship position is very critically discussed and often questioned when somebody is the fifth of six equally contributing authors – even on a Science or Nature paper.
Some supervisors aim for very high-impact journals, and their ambition leads to success. Sometimes principal investigators are delusional about the possibility of publishing very high. In both cases, the paper’s publication is delayed due to additional experiments needed, repeated rejections, and/or multiple revisions due to excessive reviewer requests. As a result, you may be moved to the second or third position because somebody else has worked on this more or after you have already left the lab.
I lost my first author position
In the worst case, you end up as a co-author, although you have contributed substantially and may even have been the first author on earlier versions of the paper. In my experience, it is challenging to argue with the principal investigator about which contributor deserves which authorship position because the value of the contribution will be determined by the principal investigator, and existing institutional rules are too vague to help. This can be very unfair. If the PI is fair, you may get some form of compensation, but to my knowledge, there are no clear rules regarding this so far.
If you know about convincing rules anywhere, please comment below to inform us!
Should I aim for multiple co-authorships?
Based on my experience in many commissions that judge grant proposals, I am convinced that a LONG publication list is better than a SHORT publication list. If there are ’empty’ years between publications, this publishing strategy will be judged negatively, even if a Nature paper is on the publication list. A typical comment may be: “Well, he published a Nature paper in 2020 but nothing in the following years; there is considerable doubt about this person’s scientific productivity and independence”.
It is crucial to know that your scientific independence will be severely questioned when you have predominantly or even exclusively co-authorships. This is particularly true when a person is an expert in a ‘supporting technique’ such as histology, electron microscopy, imaging, or behavioral testing.
As a rule of thumb, I would suggest that the number of co-authorships should not exceed the number of first/last authorships. Read more about this subject here: Should I aim for multiple co-authorships to extend my publication list?
Should I aim for co-authorships on high-impact papers?
The same is true for co-authorships on high-impact papers. When a person has several co-authorships on Nature papers, but none or only a few first/last author papers, their scientific independence will be severely questioned. Similarly, high-impact co-authorships do not help much when the average impact factor of the first/last author papers is low.
In conclusion, I would suggest not wasting your time with very high co-authorships when the impact factor of your first/last authorship publications stays low. Focus on first/last authorships.
For PhD students, first authorships are the most relevant because, at this career stage, last authorships are rather challenging to get. In contrast, postdocs must aim for senior authorships to show scientific independence when applying for grants and future positions.
Read more about this subject here: Should I aim for co-authorships on high-impact papers?
Should I aim for a very long list of low-impact papers?
In some disciplines, especially the clinical research departments, you will see huge publication lists with hundreds of publications with very low impact factors, such as surgery, internal medicine, or dermatology. These lists may include clinical cases of one page, short reviews, and position papers.
The conclusion is easy – only if you want to work in these domains, it makes sense to follow this strategy. There is one important caveat – when you apply for grant proposals and the reviewers are NOT clinicians, they will judge this negatively. In contrast, a commission composed primarily of clinicians will value it much higher. If in doubt, go for the high-impact papers (see below).
Should I publish negative results?
This is a tricky question that deserves a more complex discussion. Publishing negative findings may ruin your career, but not publishing them may be considered unethical.
Develop a publishing strategy depending on your career goals!
Considering the previous thoughts, it is evident that every young scientist has to find a personal publication strategy that may substantially differ from the strategies of other young scientists in the same research group or institution. PhD students often do not have many options, and the supervisor dictates the approach. Postdocs may have more freedom. Learning to write journal articles faster and more professionally is a good idea for all young scientists.
When asking your supervisors and colleagues for advice, remember that they may not have reflected on their publication strategy and may just follow the procedure they have learned from their own supervisor or requested by their institution. Interestingly, in most institutions, several persons follow completely different publication strategies. Analyze carefully the results of each type of strategy.
You might even realize that you can not reach your career goals in this job and that you should quit your postdoc and find a better position.
I do not know which career I want!
I systematically ask groups of young researchers in life sciences whether they know their future careers. “Do you want to work in academia (five hands) — or in industry (three hands)— or somewhere else (one hand)?” Most hands go up when I ask, “Who does not know yet?” (350 hands). Thus, most young scientists live with a dilemma – they want to keep all doors open and do not want to make the wrong decision.
As a result, they have no publication strategy and will probably follow the strategy of their supervisor.
When in doubt – publish high!
If you do not know which career to focus on, it is difficult to work hard and efficiently. Aim for high publications if you do not have a suitable alternative (Peace Corps, science administration, EU commission, journalism, etc.).
Do not waste your time with low impact factors. Often, you have to invest the *same* amount of effort in publishing a low-impact paper without any appreciation afterward. Systematically learn to increase the impact factor of your publications.
Aim for higher impact papers – at least slightly above the average level of your group, then you will feel much more appreciated later. You may even receive a scientific prize, which always helps your career because prizes are a ‘sign of excellence.’
It also makes it easier to decide whether an academic career and being a professor is the right choice. Sooner or later, you will have to make this decision anyway. Read more here: Should I become a professor? and How to become a professor.
Frequently asked questions (FAQ)
How do I measure the quality of my paper?
There are many possibilities to measure the quality and impact of a publication. The most relevant bibliographic metrics include impact factors, citations, h-index, and alternative metrics (altmetrics). These metrics are most commonly used by funding organizations and research institutions to select grant proposals or candidates (positions, research funding). Read more here: Which bibliometric data are relevant for a research career?
Should I focus on publishing in high-impact journals or on publishing a lot of papers?
There is no one-size-fits-all answer to this question, as the best publication strategy will vary depending on your individual career goals and circumstances. If you are unsure, focus on publishing fewer papers with a higher impact factor (see above).
How do I choose a suitable journal for my work?
When choosing journals to submit your work to, consider the following factors:
- The journal’s scope: have similar articles been published during the last 3 years?
- The journal’s impact factor: is your study good and complex enough for this journal?
- The journal’s readership: Who is the journal’s target audience? Is your research likely to be of interest to the journal’s readers?
- The journal’s reputation: How well-respected is the journal in your field? Does the journal have a good track record of publishing high-quality research?
Thanks to Prof. John Creemers, KUL, and Prof. Dearbhaile Dooley, University College Dublin, who critically read an earlier version of this article. I have used AI systems, including Grammarly and ChatGPT, to enhance the English and comprehensiveness of this article. This post may contain affiliate links, meaning I get a small commission if you decide to purchase through my link. Thus, you support smartsciencecareer at no cost to you!
- Do I need Nature or Science papers for a successful career in science?
- Should I aim for co-authorships on high-impact papers?
- Should I aim for multiple co-authorships to extend my publication list?
- How to become an expert in your scientific field?
- Scientific independence – how to develop and demonstrate it?
- How long does it take to complete a doctorate?
- For how long should I be a postdoc?
- Should I become a professor?
- How to become a professor?