Friday, August 22, 2008

Quantity vs. Quality: the never-ending debate

An anonymous commenter yesterday brought up an incredibly important point to remember when we discuss what kinds of publication records make our institutions (and tenure committees) happy.

"My point is that impact factors and so-called "top tier" journals are supposed to give some indication of quality and "toughness" in publishing. But there will always be someone who looks at numbers of papers (crap crap crap = 3) and others who only look for CNS and IFs. Keep track of your IFs, mark your CV with student "stars" and invited papers, and be on your toes constantly to defend why you chose the journal you submitted to."

I've now reached that stage in my career where a number of my friends are at a variety of institutions and nothing is clearer to me right now than every institution seems to have it's own crazy "rules" on this matter ("rules" are in quotes because these are not always officially sanctioned rules). I know some high quality programs where it seems to be all about numbers (i.e., 3 papers in low-tier journals are better than 2 papers in high-tier journals). I know some places have a formula combining number and journal "quality". And I know one place that apparently has a rule about where you are on the author line because I know a variety of their young faculty will throw people under the bus (including their own students) to get that particular slot. One of the messages that comes through loud and clear from my anonymous commenter is that there is no standard rule of 'success' and people can run into issues if the rules they are operating under are different from the ones their institution values (I would encourage everyone to read the comment in its entirety).

General Disarray and I have spent hours and hours discussing tenure criteria from various universities and what to do if you realize that your university does not value what you value in terms of the quality x quantity interaction (the teaching/research trade-off is beyond my abilities to deal with, so I will leave that for others). We decided that there are essentially two strategies: 1) to follow your institution's tenure criteria like they are commandments from on high or 2) focus on being as competitive as possible for the job market. We have been taking the latter path (I'll let you know how that works out for me as I get closer to the big tenure decision). Our decision was based on one core concept: if we are good enough to leave for a university of similar or better quality, we are good enough to stay. Now, there are risks with this approach, no doubt. We could potentially screw ourselves if our institution doesn't like our CVs and we actually cannot get a job somewhere else. But I would also argue that there are inherent risks to clinging to your institution's criteria - especially if in chasing those ideals you leave behind the science you love. I have friends who chased their institutions mantra of numbers above all else. To meet those criteria they  traded science they were passionate about for science that was easier to publish to large quantities in low-tiered journals. They have tenure now, but have drifted so far from the cutting edge that they can't figure out how to get back to what they loved. In part, I have to admit that I focus on option 2 for chasing tenure because it fits better with the type of science I want to do and the type of scientist I want to be...and an inherent realization that if I can't chance the questions I'm passionate about then my entire reason for doing all this in the first place is gone.

And this leads me to what I think is the most important lesson I learned from my advisor - do the science you love, publish it the best place you can, and never stop looking for the institution that is excited by that. There are so many ways to make a "successful" (and by successful I mean one that makes you happy) career in ecology that I honestly see no point in chasing someone else's ideal of "success" if it doesn't make you happy. So, if you're the woman referred to by the anonymous commenter, taking heat for only having 2 papers last year in the most prestigious journals in our field instead of 5 in some lower-tier journal, take heart, I'd hire you in a heartbeat. And to the guy who took heat for all his papers with undergrads in lower-tier journals, take heart there too, I think my university would probably over-rule me and hire you instead!

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