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The difference between 10 papers and 100 papers published

  1. Sep 11, 2010 #1
    Something that's been on my mind lately (me without any research experience) has been: Why do some researchers end up with craploads of a published papers under their belt whereas others only have a few?

    Does it all boil down to work ethic or is there something else involved?

    I'm basing this on the very naive notion that the work on see on their institutional web page constitutes as what they've done. However, I'm sure some opt out of listing their papers. Or perhaps they only list the important ones. Regardless, I still find lots of profs that have only a handful via Google Scholar while others have a lot more.

    What do you think makes the difference?
  2. jcsd
  3. Sep 11, 2010 #2
    Age, mathematical ability, inherent difficulty of the questions they answer/subjects they study, other duties within the department (are they also an academic advisor? a department head? etc.), other duties in their personal life (some professors may be single and others might be married with 4 kids) can all be a factor. The exact answer is a function of the individual professor being considered.
  4. Sep 11, 2010 #3
    Yeah, there's definitely lots of other factors. Time is of course one of the more important. But I can't help but wonder why one would make career or other life decisions that eat up lots of time in something as competitive as academia.
  5. Sep 11, 2010 #4
    Believe it or not, some people actually enjoy teaching or the other aspects of being an academic - it isn't always all about publications.

    As well as hundreds of personal factors, it also depends on what field you're in. Expectations in publications vary across research areas. It might also be difficult to get funding for work in a particular topic of interest, which could be why you take up more teaching duties instead. There are also even more things like collaboration with industry. If you're working on a practical project, it might be funded by some outside company or organisation. As part of the work, you might agree to not publish the results - that is, the work belongs to the organisation. This happens a lot in engineering, some MEng researchers I work with will put out maybe one paper a year even though they're involved full-time in research.

    As for 'something as competitive as academia' - the competitive part is getting a permanent job. Also, number of papers isn't the only important thing.
  6. Sep 11, 2010 #5
    Well, of course there are other factors involved. And quality of research trumps quantity.

    But supposing we had some metric on which we could evaluate one's contribution to their field. I get the strong sense that this metric determines whether one ends up teaching basic algebra at a community college, or being a graduate adviser at a top 50 university.

    Assume that free will actually exists, and that one can change one's habits and way of thinking enough to change the valuation of the metric I described. Using that, I look at the profs I had at the community college vs the university I'm at now and I keep wondering where they "went wrong". Did they pick bad problems? Are they just not "cut out" for a particular area of research?

    I keep coming back to the one prof I had who was completely and totally hated by everyone at the community college. He maybe had one colleague on the entire campus, while everyone else, students and faculty included, stayed away. And would always insult you every chance he had (in the most gentlemanly way possible, of course). And yet, I can find virtually nothing in this guy's list of publications, besides his PhD thesis. Whereas there are much more level headed and friendlier profs that have longer lists of publications.

    Part of me wants to think that a negative attitude towards life can affect one's work. Although I have no idea if that's true or not. There may be very good counterexamples against this claim. But it just makes me more curious..
  7. Sep 11, 2010 #6


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    Note that Richard Feynman has an unusually small number of publication for someone of his stature. Yet, his papers have extremely high number of citation.

    There are other ways to judge the amount of important work done by someone, rather than publication quantity. Citation index, the H-index, etc.. etc.. are some examples of these measures.

  8. Sep 11, 2010 #7
    Agreed. The "quantity" metric came to mind first because a) quantity often seems like "more" because there's just more of it and b) lots of small results can often times be the stepping stones you need to a more general problem. At least it shows to your peers what you've gotten done so far.
  9. Sep 11, 2010 #8


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    Patterns of publication also vary. An experimental physicist who participates in several collaborations may get his name on all papers published by each collaboration, regardless of the amount of his direct contribution to any particular paper. Also, in some fields it may be common practice to divide a single project into small "publishable chunks" so that a single experiment can generate several papers, focusing on different stages of the procedure, or different aspects of the results.
  10. Sep 11, 2010 #9


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    Some people probably did end up there because they couldn't "make it" into a permanent research-oriented academic position because of the intense competition. Some of them may have decided, either while finishing their Ph.D. or afterward, that they would actually prefer a teaching-oriented career to a research-oriented one, and focused their job search in that direction. (That's what I did.)
  11. Sep 11, 2010 #10
    I'm dead certain the one I mentioned does not want to be teaching. If his attitude during lectures was not enough, I know he's still in collaborations with another, more influential, person in his field. And by the looks of it, much of the work is not his: it's not his style of thinking.

    This all boils down to the fact that I would like to do work in that area (Category Theory) but I most certainly don't want to end up teaching at some community college. CT has some influence on computer science, but not nearly as much as say graph theory or combinatorics. That being the case, I can't seem to find many advisers in my local geography that cater to my interests. Outside of UPenn, which is way too much for me at the moment. :)

    I feel I ought to switch gears before "heading in the wrong direction".

    Even if I don't make it as high as I'd like, I personally want my bread and butter to be from my skills (or lack thereof). If that means being more applications oriented, I'm okay with that.

    But as far as teaching for my own, personal, interest: I could see myself enjoying giving lectures to introductory CompSci students. If they made me do it as a part of grad school, I would probably welcome it.
  12. Sep 11, 2010 #11
    As an experimentalist, some labs are literally paper mills, take new sample X, put into machine Y, find some standard values about it that someone somewhere cares about for sample X, publish paper, repeat. Other labs do much more difficult and fundamental research. Sometimes overcoming experimental hurdles or inventing new experimental techniques can take years. My lab alone has two core research directions, one can get 3-4 papers a year by slightly tweaking a parameter (engineering type work). The other gets a paper (generally higher impact) maybe one a year, to one every couple years.
  13. Sep 11, 2010 #12


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    Paul Erdős on publications: Non numerantur sed ponderantur. (They are not counted but weighed.)
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