When Do Top-Tier Publications Lose that Lovin’ Feeling?

Publications have long been viewed as the currency of scientists.  They impact everything from job offers to funding awards to ego boosts.  However, in last weeks’ poll (How Valuable is a Top-Tier Publication) an overwhelming majority of scientists thought it was a better career move to finish a postdoc in three years with an average publication than it was to stay for six years and finally land a home-run paper.  If the data suggest “Glamour Mags” have lost their appeal by six years, then when does that transition actually takes place?

In theory, we could hold our data for our entire career and then publish a 2,516 page monster with 1,620 figures that explains everything about out work.  Everything.  Huge impact.  But obviously, research doesn’t work that way and instead, we publish incremental findings that are just a piece of a larger puzzle.  Unfortunately, there’s no formula for knowing when a project is ready for publication.  As a result, many people hold their data for years, chasing the one or two experimental results that will enable publication, they hope, in a top-tier journal.

But science is risky and there are no guarantees those results will ever come through.  So we are all faced with the same risk-reward decision at some point- publish now in a lower impact journal or wait an unknown period of time for the higher impact paper.  Wouldn’t this decision be easier if we knew how long a top-tier publication would actually help us?

In other words, is publishing a single top-tier paper worth 10 years of our life?  According to last week’s poll, even six years may be too long.  But what is the real turning point?  After how many years does the harm of waiting for the top-tier publication outweigh the benefit of actually getting it?


How long is too long to wait for a top-tier publication?

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What’s the longest you’ve ever waited to publish a paper?



2 comments so far. Join The Discussion

  1. phoshofan

    wrote on August 10, 2010 at 1:50 pm

    This can be a tough situation for a student or postdoc to get out of since often, particularly in a larger lab, the PI will push for chasing the big paper. The PI can afford to take the risk because they get credit for all of the papers that come out of the lab. So as long as the lab is productive, the PI will not have a damaging five year gap in their publication record.

  2. idoerg

    wrote on August 10, 2010 at 5:55 pm

    Depends on your research goals. If it is becoming a PI in a top rated university or research institute, then +1 years might be worth the wait. But then again, grants are as important or sometimes more important than papers. If you get a K99 or an R21 (and of course, an R01) then that would more than offset the lack of stellar publications. After all, research departments want to be confident your research is able to generate income. And the best proof of that is a precedent you set.

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