Quality over quantity: the golden balance between quality and quantity in academic publishing

You should always prioritise quality over quantity in your track record, although publishing more can give you more visibility.

From the early stage of your research career, you are told that you need to publish your work in peer-reviewed journals.

You may even feel the pressure to publish, especially towards the end of your PhD degree, because of the “publish or perish” culture that may influence your productivity. As a result, you may be tempted to publish your work in any journal that will publish your work, regardless of its international standing and recognition.

If you’re fairly fresh to the entire publishing process, you may be wondering how many publications you should publish during PhD? Or even what journals you should consider publishing your work in?

I’ve been there and asked these questions myself! I never could get a definitive answer from my peers and supervisors – most of the answers I got emphasised the need to publish high-quality work in prestigious journals.

And I fully agree with this. You should always place the quality over quantity in your research project.

But as an academic, I am curious whether this is the case.

For example, one question that kept coming to my mind was whether there a correlation between quality and quantity or between quantity and impact?  

Let me answer some of these questions for you.

What does research say about quality over quantity?

As I mentioned above, your publications should be of a high quality advance our understanding of the world. It would be best if you also aimed to inspire other researchers with your new insights and enable them to build on your work.

Yes, quality is of paramount importance in academic publishing.

Although the common view is to place quality over quantity, the analysis by Sandström and van den Besselaar, who evaluated the importance of quantity (productivity) and the production of highly cited papers show that quantity also is an important factor to academic impact. Their work considered a database comprising 48,000 researchers, their publications recorded in Web-of-Science between 2008 and 2011 and citations up to 2014.

Their work has indicated that “the share of top cited papers increases with output”.

How many articles should you publish during PhD? Although research indicate that quality and quantity can be correlated, remember, it's always quality over quantity!
Quality over quantity? Research by Sandström and van den Besselaar revealed the correlation between the average number of top cited papers by field as a function of productivity class (here defined as the number of published papers)

Interestingly, they also indicated that “the 6.3% most productive researchers in [considered] population are responsible for 37% of all papers and for 53% of the top 1% cited papers.” 

So why producing more papers in your PhD may lead to higher quality; hence higher recognition? Here are some ideas that may explain this correlation:

– the more you write, the more ideas you generate – when you write more and embed writing in your daily schedule, you tend to come up with ideas that are related to your work. This is because while being regularly exposed to your research, you can come up with additional questions or ideas that need to be addressed;

– the more you write, the easier it gets to express your ideas – this is simple. If you practice writing journal papers, you’ll gradually become better and better. You’ll know exactly what to include in your paper and how to structure it. What data to present and how to discuss it. As a result, you’ll become more productive and spend less time writing, more time doing research. That’s why I published 11 articles in highly prestigious journals during my PhD!  

– the more you publish, the more visible your work is – this relies on the assumption that your work is of high quality and is more likely to come up in the search results. In this vein, your research is more likely to be noticed by tour peers, attract more citations and result in higher recognition.

I know it is tempting to publish as much as possible, especially given the results above. But if you place quality over quantity in your research project, you’ll build strong academic integrity and substantial recognition among peers.

How many articles should you publish during PhD? 

This is the most common question I get from PhDs who just started their degrees. And I appreciate this question – after all, we all need clear goals to be productive and motivated.

What is the ultimate answer to this question, considering the above discussion on a correlation between quality and quantity?

When considering how many articles should you publish during PhD, make sure you always place quality over quantity
Always place quality over quantity in your research project. As a result, you’ll become the recognised and respected expert in your research area.

How many articles should you publish during PhD?

What is the right balance between quality and quantity?

Well, this will really depend on the subject area you are in, the methods and frameworks you apply in your PhD, your drive to publish and much more.

This seems like a very ambiguous answer, isn’t it?

Because it is.

Some universities may have specific guidelines on the minimum number of publications you need to produce during your PhD, before you can even present your PhD thesis to your committee. Other universities have unofficial or even no expectations regarding a specific number of publications out of your PhD research.

This just adds to the uncertainty of the academic environment.

Yet, some rules of thumb can help you plan your research project (I share with PhD researchers in my research team too!).

Besides introduction, literature review, methodology and conclusion chapters, most of the PhD theses comprise around 3-6 research chapters. These chapters present the key outcomes out of your PhD.

Therefore, if you consider that each research chapter presents a novel idea and innovative results, you should be in place to publish each chapter as a research paper.

Following this reasoning, you should be able to publish at least 3-4 high-quality research papers (i.e. Q1 journals) out of your PhD work.

It doesn’t sound that scary, does it?

Regardless how many articles you publish during PhD, make sure you place quality over quantity!

A final word…

Quantity and quantity in academic publishing is a common point of discussion, especially when you’re at the very beginning of your research project.

We all have a desire to publish as much as possible. This is a human thing and some academic studies confirmed that quantity could enhance your visibility, hence impact.

However, you need to publish in recognised journals to build your track record and leverage this visibility.

Therefore, I urge you to put much more focus on quality over quantity in your PhD and research projects.

If you finished your PhD, share with us how many publications have you produced out of your PhD.

If you’re still working towards your PhD, share with us your approach to publication planning. We hope you’ve got one!

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Academic Coach at Motivated Academic, senior lecturer at Cranfield University, UK.

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