Posted by: oikosasa | November 29, 2012

Do we publish too much?

H-index, Impact Factor, citations, number of publications per year – metrics all around the scientist. The currency of science. Has it gone that far that the metrics is about to kill scientific quality?

This “quantity mantra” – the obsession with measuring scientific quantity – and not quality- was recently criticized by Joern Fischer, Euan G. Ritchie and Jan Hanspach in TREE. They argue that metrics has lead to an increased number of publications, larger research consortia and more administration. More papers published means more time spent on reading papers, reviewing papers and editing papers. With a general limit of 24 hours per day, that inevitably means less time for other activities. And it’s particularly reflection time and time spent to stimulate creativity that is suffering most, according to Fischer et al. This in turn, leads to decreased quality of science. Is this the way we want to go? The paper finishes with “Starting with our own university departments (but not stopping there), it is time to take stock of what we are doing. We must recreate spaces for reflection, personal relationships, and depth. More does not equal better.”  The question is, How?

Good place for reflection…

As a reply to Fisher et al.’s paper, Panu Halme, Atte Komonen and Otso Huitu transfer the problem from individual researchers and departments to science politics and funding strategies. They argue, that the main problem lies in the absence of scientific thinking among senior scientists. “Senior scientists rarely enjoy the luxury of having time to read about and contemplate the theory of their field, let alone participate in the gathering of primary data in the field or laboratory. Halme et al.’s solution to this problem, and suggested mean to leave room for slower science and increased quality, is to limit the numbers of students associated with each professor, and funding forms enabling seniors to focus exclusively on science.

In a reply, Fischer et al. actually comes up with a number of hands-on solutions, both for individual scientists, department leaders, science politicians and decision makers and for funding agencies.

Is it the increased quantity of publication that actually causes the increased stress for scientists? And how should the problem best be solved? Bottom up or top down? How do you release time to think deep, scientific thoughts and to reflect over your research?

Fischer et al.’s “Academia’s obsession with quantity

Halme’ et al.’s Solutions to replace quantity with quality in science

Fischer et al.’s “An academia beyond quantity…”


  1. I think that it would be helpful to have more peer-reviewed journals that accepted papers that were built on solid science and not just the “novelty” or significant results found in those papers. It seems we need to find interactions between x and y to get published. However, the lack of interactions between x and y is in many ways just as useful. This certainly wouldn’t solve all of the problems listed above, but it would improve the overall quality of research.

  2. Thanks for highlighting our papers — especially the one with solutions (which often gets lost)! We have been completely overwhelmed by the number of responses to these papers. It obviously is a topic that needs more discussion.

    Readers of this blog might be interested in some other related issues we cover on our blog site, especially in the category “Trends in conservation and sustainability science”. Some of those entries are about the changing content, but some are about changing research culture (and as such might be of interest to people not working specifically on conservation or sustainability).

    The blog lives here:

    And the category on changing trends lives here:

  3. Many thanks to Joern, Euan and Jan for igniting this debate and to the Oikos blog for publicising it. This is a conversation that is vital to ensure that those aspiring to a life in academia also have a life. Doing so will surely make academia a more desirable career for a wider range of people and may also help improve retention rates of women, a group underrepresented in the senior echelons of this profession.

    It helps to realise that some of the shining lights of science have championed a work-life balance. For instance, Robert MacArthur is reputed to have put his family life above all else and still produced some of the most influential works in ecology in his all-too-short career. In doing so, he inspired other ecologists of the next generation to seek the same balance. Indeed, it has even been argued that it was this balance that allowed his genius to flourish ( Surely MacArthur epitomises an academia beyond quantity, replete with an appropriate work-life balance.

    He is not the only one. Brian Schmidt, a recent Nobel Laureate in physics, called for similar work-life balance in a commencement address at his alma mater ( He went so far to say that ‘Spending time with your family is not a sign of weakness; it is the sign of a happy and balanced individual.’

    As ecologists we often work towards a goal of sustainable resource use. In doing so we must also ensure our own work is sustainable. ‘An academia beyond quantity’ and the suggestions in that and the subsequent papers will go a long way to achieving this.

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