How many papers one should aim to publish as a graduate student or postdoc? Some may offer this quick response- publish as many papers as possible! However, I would caution against such a strategy. Sometimes one good paper might be better than several and help you more in your career. I will explain why.
Our mandate as scientists is to produce knowledge, not to crank out papers for a CV. We want to uncover something new that has not been found by our scientific predecessors and hopefully satisfy our own curiosity in the process. Obtaining a solution to an important scientific problem can take time, as I describe in my first blog. Three years of experimental work is not uncommon, plus the additional time to submit and revise the paper. If the question underlying the study is significant, then this investment of time is worthwhile.
Let us consider a situation of two individuals — a student/postdoc who has published a single, outstanding paper in a good journal (ie maybe one of the top 6 or so in a given field) and another individual who has published 4 papers in third tier journals, each relatively incremental in their findings. Who would fair better in a grant, getting a job or receiving a promotion? Some institutions may be “bean counters” and just look at the length of the CV. However, in most situations (ie. international grant reviews), the “winner” is usually the individual who has done the more significant scientific work, even if this means fewer publications. Naturally judging “significance” in science is not trivial, and the easiest route (unfortunately employed by too many institutions) is to use a formula based upon journal impact factor (see the blog by Dr. Lakhotia). However, take heart if your paper is not published in the top three journals. I believe that important science is not valued solely by journal name, but also by the respect garnered from colleagues in the field (which comes through in letters of recommendation, invitations to meetings and other venues). Also, of importance is long term value of the work — are people still reading and citing your paper a year or two after it has been published?
I can offer a second “real life” example. When I am up for renewal at that Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the review process requires that I list my top 5 publications from the last 5 years along with an explanation of why I think each paper is important. My grant is more likely to get renewed if I have 5 good papers than a long list of publications that have minimal impact.
What advice can I offer a young scientist? First, I should stress that there are no fixed guidelines; science and publications are not as predictable as taking exams. But as a general comment- it is okay to start with a modest first paper and then to try to reach higher in your goals later. Modest expectations for your first paper are reasonable, since there is a tremendous learning curve in understanding how to collect data and develop a logical “story” that can be told in figures, tables and words. You might have been a brilliant student in school, but the scientific process is completely different from anything that you have done in the past. You will be inefficient in your experiments, miss opportunities to collect proper data for figures, and your writing will be slow and cumbersome. However, there is hope. Having gone through the process once from start to finish, your second paper will proceed faster and be much smoother. Your first paper is a learning experience; you should have a good question to answer, but you need not shake the scientific world. However, for your second scientific work, you should stretch yourself a bit further- focus on finding a good question to solve (this is critical!!) and producing a paper that will be of value to the field. Stretch yourself further and learn by doing so. If you only seek to write papers that answer very small questions, then you will miss that opportunity to challenge yourself as scientist, arouse your curiosity and generate respect from the scientific community. Naturally, this is not an easy task. It requires your own compass and motivation, and naturally guidance from mentors along the way.