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Researchers’ risk-smoothing publication strategies: Is productivity the enemy of impact?

In the quest for balancing research productivity and impact, researchers in science and engineering are often encouraged to adopt a ‘play-it-safe’ research and publication strategy that allows them to maintain high publication productivity and accelerate their career advancement but may reduce the likelihood of high impact or breakthrough research outcomes. In this paper, Kolesnikov et al. studied bibliometric data for 227 professors of chemistry and 148 professors of mechanical engineering and analysed the relationship between publication strategies, publishing productivity and citation-based publication impact.
Their results indicate that for chemistry, publishing at the higher margin of productivity leads to a stagnant or declining publication impact. However, these findings differ for mechanical engineering, where higher publishing productivity consistently leads to higher publication impact. These differences between the disciplines may be due to a higher tendency for productivity-focused publication strategies in chemistry than in mechanical engineering.
Ultimately, the authors argue that alarm bells should go off if there is a ubiquitous shift in individual choices of strategy such that even the most talented researchers are attracted to a strategy that maximizes the likelihood of increased, short-term productivity at the expense of a systemic neglect of the ‘‘big questions.’’

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