Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Strategic Goals

I do believe that strategy and planning are closely related. Ann Latham says that "those who approach strategy as planning are severely handicapped by their current situation," but I have more often found that those who detach strategy from planning are just as handicapped by their unrealistic strategy. In the case of research strategy and, more specifically, publication strategy I think it is very important to do what Latham advises against, namely, to "filter ... opportunities through current capabilities." How can research institutions do that in practice?

My advice is to look back over the last five years of publications in the research group, department, or school in question. From all the work that has been produced select a set of articles that have been published in well-established, international, peer-reviewed journals—the sort of articles that you're unhesitatingly proud of. What you're interested in here is not some absolute figure of research productivity or quality, but a relative indicator you track over time.

It will, of course, be a finite list. If you take all the articles you've published in prestigious journals over the last five years, you'll have a manageable list, and since you're only discussing work that's actually been published, you don't need to have abstract conversations about the quality of every journal in your field. Once the list of articles you want "count" has been made for the last five years in total, you organize them by year. You now simply count how many articles you've published in the key, "indicator" journals in each year. This will give you a sense of your current situation and some sense of your future prospects.

Now, add some journals to the list that seem within your reach over the next five years but that you have not yet published in. (Keep in mind that I'm referring to "you" as a collective—a research group or department—but you can obviously do a similar exercise in your own, individual case.) These are journals that, if you do manage to publish in them, you'll count too. You are also measuring you past performance by whether or not you published in them in a particular year; you just happen to have published zero articles in them so far.

The list of journals is now a bit bigger, but still finite. Now your publication strategy has some goals, namely, that list of journals that you've either successfully published in in the past, or feel it is possible to publish in in the future. You must now make a plan for how to reach these goals. And the plan is quite simple: you write in order to submit to these journals. But you should of course plan to submit more articles to these journals than you hope to publish. A rough way to estimate how many more is to look at their rejection rate. If you school wants to publish in a journal with an 80% rejection rate, for example, it should plan to submit five articles for every one article it hopes to publish there.

Notice what this means. At the end of the year, you can of course ask yourself whether or not you met your publication goals for that year. But you can also ask yourself whether or not you met your submission goals. Publications are nice to show off, but they are difficult to plan. Submissions, however, are entirely within your ability to control. My advice to research directors, department heads, and deans, therefore, is have a strategy for where to submit and how often to do so, and then track success on that indicator, not the elusive prize of actual publication. Publications will come in a natural way from the disciplined pursuit of submissions.


Presskorn said...

I wonder if you have an opinion on this then:


Andrew Shields said...

Submissions are under the writer's control: one of the first lessons of poets submitting poems to journals!

Andrew Gelman said...


Are you worried that this advice is possibly negative-sum, in that you are implicitly encouraging people to flood journals with submissions of half-baked work? Consider the example of Bruno Frey!

Thomas said...

I'll post about that question tomorrow. (Both Presskorn and Andrew Gelman have now asked for my view on that.) The short answer is that I think journals need to have efficient enough filters for recognizing half-baked work.

I'm encouraging people to finish work for submission in a timely fashion. Not to half-bake it.

Andrew Shields said...

Jonathan Mayhew always insists that part of writing regularly is that you never put things off until close to a deadline. So when he agrees to do a book review that is due in six months, he writes it right away.

People who work with your methods and his "stupid motivational tricks" should be able to avoid having trouble with deadlines (barring illness).