Publishing – how much is enough?

September 26, 2014

Dear Dr. Laura,

Publishing – how much is enough? Publishing can side track you from making forward progress on your own work, but it is important on the job market. How much is the right balance?

The Scribbler

Dear Scribbler,

Thank you for your question. This is an important concern—one I believe many doctoral students share. There is no formula for this, as I’m sure you are aware. Some initial, basic recommendations I would make would be to present yourself as a well-rounded researcher—one who is able to work independently (i.e., a single authored paper) and as part of a team (i.e., a group paper). It’s okay to publish with your faculty advisor and mentors in their research agendas, but be sure to plan your own agenda and demonstrate your ability to publish independently of your advisor and mentors. This shows that you can take charge of your own research and move it forward on your own steam. As I’m sure you are aware, once you become faculty, there will be no supervisor standing over you expecting you to make a paper deadline; but should you not produce, you will not receive tenure. So demonstrating that you are self-directed and self-motivated while in the doctoral program is important.

Quality over Quantity: Create a Story of Your Research
It’s also important to ensure you produce quality work and create a coherent story about your research so that you begin to establish a solid research agenda while in school, which also makes you a more marketable candidate when you go on the job market.

The pressures doctoral students face are considerable, and it’s easy to get overwhelmed especially if you fall into the trap of comparing yourself to others. Just because a colleague has four more papers than you, is not necessarily a sign that they are more successful. Quantity does not necessarily signal quality.

Instead, think about what is important for you and your work, and how to establish yourself as a promising scholar. The papers you write should tell a compelling, cohesive story about your research: what problems or questions you find interesting, why they are interesting to you, how you approach their resolution, and how you build on what you learn with each study. Your doctoral work should also give your readers a sense of what to expect from you, what direction your work will take, in the future.

A few well-crafted pieces that hang together, published in strong journals or conferences, will represent you better than high numbers of one-off, opportunistic publications in venues with no reputation or a reputation for accepting almost anything. Also, avoid recycling ideas too many times to stack your numbers. You do not want to be labeled a master of the “smallest published unit.” You don’t want to end up in an interview sitting across the table from someone waving a paper of yours that you’re not proud of.

Begin now to lay the foundation for a lifetime reputation for producing solid work in quality venues that have good readership. Aim high and use the feedback you get to improve.

Learn the Landscape
Publishing is a time-consuming process, even if you limit your efforts to a smaller number of papers. Develop your publishing acumen by devoting some of your energy to learning the publishing landscape. What are the top journals? Top conferences? What research topics do they typically feature? What is their review process like; how long do they typically take to review and make decisions? What is their acceptance rate? Be willing to go to any length to arm yourself with information that makes you a more savvy author. Enlist a librarian’s help; ask faculty what they think. Send an abstract to the editor for assistance determining if your idea is within the journal’s scope. Knowing the landscape can help you make more targeted, time-saving submissions with a greater potential for favorable decisions.

Be wary of unsolicited email invitations to publish, and journals that that charge you for publishing. With all the great journals and conferences in the ILS field that don’t require payment, there really is no need to do this. Protect yourself.

Waste Not Want Not
There is so much to do and dissertations take a lot of time. So make the most of your writing. If possible try to focus on publishing projects that will help you build toward your finished dissertation. Do you need to do a pilot study in preparation for your dissertation? If so, publish your findings from that.

For every research project, think of three possible publications:

  • One providing scholarly content about the research results and the study’s impact on the field.
  • One focused on the methodology and/or the methodological issues you encountered. This can be reflective.
  • One perhaps for practitioners, focused on recommendations or good practices that have come to light as a result of the work.

Remember too that posters are great opportunities for publishing preliminary work because they help you get your name out there more quickly and they provide you with a wealth of feedback and advice to improve the work going forward. Plus, poster sessions are fun and provide great networking opportunities.

I also recommend getting an editor, writing coach, or writing buddy. I had a writing coach/editor while in school that did wonders for my writing and also dramatically increased my ability to win fellowships and other funding awards. Dr. George Gopen ( is an amazing writing teacher. I strongly encourage you to investigate classes he may be giving in your area and to read his book The Sense of Structure: Writing from the Reader’s Perspective.

Dr. Laura

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