Why we should not compare scholars based on the number of publications and citations

Publish or Perish! A common phrase in academia. In simple words, to survive in academia, scholars need to publish. I started my PhD in 2015 and finished in 2018. Since then, I have been working as a faculty member, teaching, supervising and researching. In the six-seven years of academic career, I have been in the both sides of publish or perish scale, multiple times already.

It was only three months before submission of my PhD dissertation, I had my first PhD paper published. Sequentially, it was the third paper of the dissertation that was published first as the first two got stuck in journal review process for years. Based on google scholar, it seems my citations are doing well in recent years for a young scholar, but that also took quite some time to kick-off. Anyway, since PhD years, I have developed great interest for scientometrics or bibliometrics analysis. Coupling my own experience with bibliometrics analysis knowledge, I have observed some patterns in academic publishing, which leads to seven points on why should we not compare scholars based on number of publications and citations.           

  1. Scholars have different research focus. For instance, some scholars focus on method development while some on applications of methods. For instance, the professor that developed the ‘auto.arima’ function in the ‘forecasting’ package in the R software, only published one paper about it but hundreds of scholars if not thousands have published using the same function. Could the founding professor not publish hundreds of papers using this? Yes, he could but he did not. His focus is on developing new functions and methods. Similarly, some scholars focus on theory development while some on testing theories in different context. Some focus on ground-breaking results while some on marginal contribution.  
  2. Scholars target different levels of journals. Some scholar only targets high level journals, and some maintain a portfolio approach. One ABS 4 level publication requires much higher efforts than publishing maybe five or more ABS 1 level papers. Also, it requires a very different strategy and approach to research for ABS 4 level journals. I recently saw a job announcement for Associate Professor position in a reputed university where they state that to qualify for the position the applicant much have at least one ABS 4 level paper or two ABS 3 level paper. So, they are considering one ABS 4 as equivalent to two ABS 3.   
  3. Scholars have different career focus. Some focus more on teaching, some on projects and some on publishing. It is natural that those who focus more on teaching and project are likely to publish comparatively less. Even focus of scholars change over time. Some switch their focus from research to teaching, some from teaching to research, and so on.
  4. Scholar have different approach to contribution. Some scholars contribute through providing unique dataset, some through conceptualization, some through methodological analysis, some through writing, and so on. Of course to be a co-author, one has to do at least one of these mentioned plus revise and edit the full draft. If one masters a method, it may take long the first time to implement it but after a certain period, applying the same method become faster and the same author can contribute to a higher umber of papers by doing the formal analysis. Someone who built a dataset over 10 years for example, is likely to have a higher number of publications after that if the dataset is unique. These scholars have put effort in early days in building specific knowledge that helps to leverage in later point in time. In recent years, I have realized that ‘idea’ is the most important for high quality research and this is where experience professors contribute the most.   
  5. Scholars have different institutional context. Universities differ in strategy. Some universities focus more on teaching, some more on research. Some focus more on quality, some on quantity. Also, the countries hosting the universities differ too in strategy and environment which might shape university strategy.
  6. Scholars work on different topics. If you work on a topic where there are few researchers, you are likely to receive lesser citations compared to those who work on a topic where thousands are working. But it might happen that after 10 years your topic become one of the mainstreams and suddenly your citations increase exponentially. For instance, this happened to many early artificial intelligence (AI) scholars who were researching AI before 2000. In the last 10 years, many of their early publications received exponential citation growth. Another example is the “sustainability” related topics. In recent years, thousands of scholars are working on sustainability-related topics which increases the potentials for citations compared to a niche topic such as maritime history, for example.   
  7. Scholars work on different fields of research. The field of research of scholars also matter when it comes to publishing and citations. For instance, papers in medicine domain typically receives higher citations in early years when the finding of the study is most relevant. Similar trend can be noticed in computer science and engineering domains as well. On the other hand, in social science, often it takes several years for findings of published studies to get noticed and hence majority of citations come in later years. Due to this, impact factors of natural science journals are often much higher than social science ones. Hence, it would be native to compare scholars from different fields based on their number of publications and citations.

This post is based on only my opinion. If you have some thoughts, please leave in comments.

This is a Research HUB original post by Dr. Ziaul Haque Munim. He is currently working as Associate Professor in Maritime Logistics at the  University of South-Eastern Norway. His main research interests include maritime logistics, forecasting, supply chain management and international business. He received the Best Paper Award at the IAME 2016 Conference in Hamburg, and the Best Young Researcher Award at the IAME 2018 Conference in Mombasa. He published several articles in leading journals such as Journal of Business Research, Resources Conservation & Recycling, Asia Pacific Journal of Management, and others. Follow his research on ResearchGate and Google Scholar.


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