How Many Top Publications Do You Have? or The Curse of Performance Metrics

“I don’t really believe in citations myself. I don’t really count citations. I don’t value anybody’s work by the number of citations they have. I think it’s a mistake.”

A quote by Nobel Prize winner James Heckman, uttered at an unusual panel at the 2017 American Economic Association meeting. It was titled ‘Publishing and promotion in Economics: The curse of the top five’, a reference to the top five journals dominating the Economics field. One of the anecdotes told was about graduate students endlessly deferring their ‘entry to the job market’ until they were sure of a top five publication. Waiting, waiting, waiting, then shooting for the stars, for better or worse. It is up or out. Jump though the elusive hoop to have a shot at a life in the academy.

The rigid (sometimes crazy) ways academics’ performances are assessed has negative consequences for science itself, that was the main message of the panel. It negatively affects the quality of knowledge generated and published, it causes rivalries between camps and tunnel vision within disciplines, and it leads to a culture of counting, over content. Oh, and it is really bad for young researchers, who are increasingly ‘writing to the test’, aiming at achieving within the system, no matter the costs.

Heckman showed a graph of how much more difficult it has become to land a publication in a top journal. The field has grown, submissions have increased, and acceptance rates have plunged. The golden tip of the academic pyramid is increasingly out of reach. Yet entering it, even only once, is increasingly seen as as necessary for building a reputation and a career.

Screenshot 2017-04-05 12.26.33

All of this made me scratch my head. Why is it no surprise that life in academia feels like a rat race? (Because it is!!) Why is it no surprise that so many researchers are stressed to the limit? In Economics it is the top five, but it seems every field has its own version. Always running to meet that next measure of performance. We’re never there. There’s always a new metric looming around the corner.

There are no immediate solutions for this conundrum, if there were I am sure the Nobel prize winner and co would have come up with something! Seems academia is stuck with systems that are not necessarily good for science, or academics, for now. At a personal level I feel it asks for a certain resolve to live and work (and ‘perform’) well no matter the rules set by the system. Rules that are often unfair, arbitrary, and rigged against you. Lots of fun!

Some thoughts:

Know the ‘rules’

It’s important to understand the pressures you are subject to. Study them, so you know where they start and end, and to avoid becoming trapped by them. Whatever the performance metrics are in your field and situation, whether it is the deadline for the first draft of your thesis, or getting that top publication to get tenure, get to know how the system works. Look at the structure of it. How exactly is ‘performance’ measured? What counts and what doesn’t? What is expected of people? How realistic are these expectations? Be aware of the rules of the game, seeing it for what it is: a system, a set of concepts, nothing that can ultimately validate or invalidate you. It will allow you to play the academic game with your eyes wide open. (Personally, I wish I’d been more savvy about this in my PhD years. I wish I’d asked my supervisor for more help in figuring out what the written and unwritten rules of the game were.)

Don’t internalise the rules

This is the difficult part. It is all right for professor Heckman to say he doesn’t believe in citations, but what if your evaluations, and whether you have a job at all, depend on it? I really believe that a rebel mindset is the only thing that can save us! (The alternative: internalising the system, but in that case if you lose, what are you going to do? Consider yourself a failure until the end of days? Hm.) Playing along with the rules to the degree you feel you have to is important, but so is remaining fiercely aware it is an impersonal, often arbitrary system. It’s vital to not let it near the way you value yourself. Don’t let anyone tell you lies about how competition or metrics create the best science or researchers. (Maybe refer them to Heckman’s talk!) Resist the oversimplifications. Resist the tendency to measure yourself by your institution’s yardstick. (This often happens without you noticing. All of a sudden you care too much about that dreaded deadline!!!)

Your own terms of success

I read a Camus quote the other day: “The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.” I liked it. You don’t want your mind loops to start mirroring those of your institution. Nope. Not allowing that to happen. What would be the alternative? What are your own terms of success? What is your own value and reward system? Make sure it is kinder than that of your university. How would you live if you didn’t care about citations or deadlines? (So free!!! This is the part I like.)

Intrinsic motivation

Remind yourself of why you do the work you do. What makes you light up? What is the story you need to tell? What are the data you need to present? Why do you care? What paper is yours to write? What’s your argument? Where does the excitement live? Nurture it. Keep it alive. One of the participants in the EASA panel noted: ‘We don’t want to shrink our world. This I think is shrinking our world.’ Once you get lost in the meta-world of races and achievement, you lose what is so powerful: content, intrinsic value, and intrinsic motivation. Don’t let the system shrink your world. (Here you get to live your ‘romance’ with your work. This is it.)

Focus on habits, not goals

If goals are increasingly arbitrary, increasingly elusive, but meeting these goals increasingly important, how to handle the pressure? One way is to shift from focusing on goals, to focusing on the habits you have in place to achieve those goals. You have no control over whether your paper will be published or where, but you do have control over how you write that paper (more control, at least). Focusing on your small achievements every day really helps. (I have written lots about working in waves, and other ways to enhance your productivity before, see the productivity tag)

The good life

What, in or outside of work, gives you joy, pleasure, fulfilment? It is impossible to not get dragged down by the pressure, the measuring and the rejections, from time to time. You need copious antidotes in your life. A shield of them! Small pleasures, and bigger ones. What makes you come alive? What are you grateful for? What makes you forget about the stresses of work for a bit? Who are your friends outside of academic life? Do those things. Notice those things. Be with these people. Wellbeing is a skill (to a degree). If you are attuned to the good in your life, the negative holds less power. (Very true. Small shift in perception makes for a very different life.)

What are your experiences with performance metrics? Do you have a way of working with the system without losing yourself? For more support: The HappyPhD Course will help you create a productivity system in which you set the rules, not your university. It will help you bounce back faster, and stay on track, also when you’re faced with deadlines, pressure, and inevitable rejection along the way. If you enjoyed this post, could you share it? I appreciate it!

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