What do academics do once the research is published?


At the University of Northampton we run a programme of generic training workshops aimed at research students (MPhil and PhD) from across all disciplines.  I contribute to several, including one called “Getting Published”, usually run with my colleague Professor Ian Livingstone.  This focuses on academic papers/articles (phraseology varies with subject) and covers all of what you might expect such a workshop to feature, including asking about motivations for wanting to publish research*, when is the right time to publish your research**, issues about co-authorship***, and so forth.

One of the key aspects of the workshop is a flow chart of the process of getting published, beginning at “do the research”, moving on to writing it up, choosing a journal, submitting to a journal, peer review, dealing with reviewers’ comments, writing a covering letter, coping with rejection, re-submission to the same or a different journal, celebrating acceptance, etc.  All fairly standard stuff.

By this point we’re about three-quarters of the way through the workshop, so I ask a question:

“OK, you’ve gone through the whole process (which can take anything from months to years) and your paper has been published.  You’re very pleased, of course.  What do you do next?”

Responses at this point are typically a blank expression, or perhaps “What else is there to do?  The paper’s published, we’ve done our job.  Move on to the next”.  In other words, the general feeling seems to be that the process stops when the research is published.  I politely suggest that this is not so, that you’re still only part-way through the process, and explain why, starting with this table:

Clinical:                                  48.9%

Biological Sciences:           37.8%

Environment:                       37.3%

Physical Sciences:              42.3%

Social Sciences:                   55.4%

Business:                                57.2%

Humanities:                          77.5%

These figures are the percentages of un-cited research papers (in 2005, by broad discipline) published in the UK for the period 2000 to 2004.   The total number of un-cited papers is 122,771****.  There are other similar statistics available, some with broader time windows, but they all point to the same conclusion: in all disciplines, a high proportion of research papers are never referred to by other researchers in the field.  And in some disciplines it’s the majority of papers.

That’s not to say that the research is no good, or even that it’s not being read, but it’s certainly not being cited.  Citation is not the only measure of the “quality” of a piece of work of course, but it at least indicates that peers have read the work, and citation is central to a range of widely used metrics, including the h-index.

This usually comes as a shock to the postgrads, as it does to many established academics!  The low average citation rate of papers is mainly a response to the sheer volume of research currently being published, as I’ve discussed previously in relation to the field of pollination ecology.

How do researchers in a field decide which papers they are going to read and/or cite, and which they ignore?  It’s been suggested that academics often have quite conservative citing patterns, referring again and again to the same work or authors in their own papers.  How can a researcher break through this conservatism and have their own work cited?

One answer is to promote your work after it’s published and the workshop offers some ideas on how to do this:

  • Send PDFs of your papers to other researchers, whether you know them personally or not.  I’m always happy to receive copies of papers that I might otherwise miss.
  • Deposit copies with your institutional electronic repository (at Northampton that’s NECTAR)
  • Tell the world about it using social media, either general (Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn) or academic (ResearchGate, academia.edu)
  • Send announcements to email discussion groups in your field
  • If you blog, write a post about it (as I did for the pollinator extinctions paper last month)
  • If the work is particularly novel/important/high impact, consider writing a press release with your institution’s press office, or at least a news item on the website.
  • Consider writing up your research as a non-academic piece in a magazine or newspaper for a wider, public audience (see comment below)
  • Present the work (and cite it) at conferences & seminars (the old fashioned way…..)

This kind of “self promotion” is anathema to some academics, for reasons that are not clear to me but may relate to misguided notions about sullying the purity of their work with grubby advertising, something that’s been discussed over at the Dynamic Ecology blog.

But if you don’t promote your work, no one else will do it for you!  Doing research and writing books and papers is a creative endeavour just as much as any of the arts or music.  Would we expect an artist to not advertise the work they do?  Or a musician to keep compositions to themselves.  No, they have exhibitions and concerts, and use advertising in all its forms, to promote their work.

Ultimately a piece of research is only as good as its reception by the audience at which it’s aimed: some brilliant research findings have been ignored for decades because it had disappeared into academic obscurity.  This is likely to happen even more in the future, I’d suggest, given the amount of work that’s being published.

Do you have other strategies for promoting your work?  Or do you disagree with some of what I’ve said?  Feel free to comment, I’d be happy to hear from you.

*”earning money” occasionally pops up as a (naive) reason, so we have to point out that academics rarely get paid for their academic publishing, other than (meagre) book royalties.

**As soon as is feasible, even if it’s a short literature review.

***Make sure everyone, especially supervisors, is clear about which work will be co-authored, which will not, and why.

****Source: PSA target metrics for the UK research base, Office of Science and Technology, DTI (2005)

22 thoughts on “What do academics do once the research is published?

  1. Pingback: Increasing your citation count – a how-to guide | Research Support Hub

  2. Mike Grant

    Another way of promoting your research is to write about it in popular (non-peer-reviewed) journals and magazines related to your area of work. Jeff, of course, does this, and I have published an article by him in The Plantsman about native pollinators. Editors of such magazines, like me, are often keen to have scientists describe their work and its relevance in layman’s terms. These magazines are often more widely read than peer-reviewed journals!

  3. philipstrange

    I wish I had been given all this advice when I started out, I made some huge blunders in publishing although I did learn eventually!
    Two other possible bullet points:
    1. approach a high profile review journal (Trends in etc.) with a proposal to do a review on your area
    2. capitalise on your published research by writing a grant application based on your novel data

  4. jeffollerton Post author

    A commenter on Facebook made some interesting points:

    “Great post Jeff. But there is a problem. When everybody jumps into the business of self promotion using the methods you suggest, it will stop working. Simply put, there will be congestion of information and people will have to resort to other means. In the-not-so-old-days, self promotion was done at conferences through posters and talks. This method is still in use, but social media and email has somehow taken the lead. What is next? I think the real problem is the inflation in publications. In a world with ever increasing numbers of papers published, people will carry on being conservative as a strategy for coping with an unmanageable number of studies being published every day. This means they will check the journals they like and focus on the authors they have learned to enjoy. Breaking the spiral is possible but hard work.”

    My response was: “Thanks, you raise some interesting points, and I guess the analogy is with arms races (military and evolutionary). My initial reaction is that we’re still a long way from everybody (or even the majority) of academics in a field promoting their work in these ways. That’s likely to happen within the next few generations, if it happens at all. By then the whole nature of academic publishing may have changed, who knows?”

  5. Florian Hartig

    I think it’s fine to promote your research on all communication channels that people can opt-in, i.e. blogs, twitter, conferences. However, I would NOT advise to write emails to random people unless one is really really sure that they appreciate the info.

    Jeff – when I understand you correctly you agree that this may be an arms race, but you think it’s fine because not everyone is racing yet? This makes sense from a selfish perspective, but the question is then if any societal purpose is served by this behavior, or if, in the worst case, the common good may even be decreased (which is the typical property of an arms race).

    1. jeffollerton Post author

      Hi Florian – thanks for your comments.

      Regarding your first point, I wasn’t suggesting that one should send the paper to “random people”, what I said was “Send PDFs of your papers to other researchers, whether you know them personally or not”.

      Perhaps I should have said “other researchers in the field”, but I thought that was implicit in what I wrote. Would you really object if another researcher who thought you may be interested in a piece of work sent you a copy? There’s a long and honourable tradition of this in academia, it’s not a new practice.

      As for the second point, I really have no idea whether this might become an arms race or not, or if the whole nature of academic publishing will change considerably as I mentioned, and which has been widely spoken about.

      On a more general point, I think that there are many who would see an increase in the common good as a side-product of arms races (e.g. enhanced security, economic prosperity, technological advances). I’m not saying I buy that argument, in whole or in part, but it’s certainly one that’s been made.



      1. Florian Hartig

        Hi Jeff,

        sorry, I didn’t think you meant random, I just chose the word for a stronger contrast.

        I guess we simply have different feelings about the email thing – I do appreciate receiving emails from colleagues who know that I am working on a very related topic, but I don’t find it appropriate to send around emails to people that are in the wider field. Maybe that was useful some time ago, but today, if people really want to get news about a certain topic, they can easily subscribe to an RSS feed or an email alert.

  6. Catherine M. Jones

    I agree that researchers need to promote their research….how about posting yourself talking about your research on Youtube to reach a wide audience…..but perhaps people talking enthusiastically about your work is more important than the number of citations 🙂

  7. Victor Venema (@VariabilityBlog)

    The number of citations probably includes self-citations. Thus it seems save to assume that the authors of these non-cited papers also do not want to be read lest the reader would think less of them afterwards. Many articles are submitted to have one more reference for the final report of the scientific project that was always a huge success.

    That being said, promotion is a part of the publication cycle. The more targeted the better for everyone.

    1. jeffollerton Post author

      Hi Victor – you raise an interesting point. Of course another explanation may be that the distribution of number of publications per author is very right skewed, with most authors only producing one or two papers. This could certainly be the case if a high proportion of papers is written by PhD students who then never go on to publish again. I have no idea if there is research to support this though.

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  9. steve.a.hawkins@ntlworld.com

    Wise words Jeff (y)

    Quite shocking that nearly 50% of medical research seems to be going to waste!

    Makes me feel a bit guilty about my preferred writing style of generalisations, and not wanting to be slowed up by referring to the people who helped me form those generalisations. :/

    Steve Hawkins

    1. jeffollerton Post author

      Thanks Steve. Interesting point you make – perhaps part of the problem is, as you say, that we’re not giving sufficient credit to previous research. But then many journals have a limit on the number of references that can be included.

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  12. rosarioesgueraramirez

    Hi there Jeff. Your article is indeed informative and an eye-opener for us in the academe. I agree with you that self-promotion should be done by researchers. Once they have published, they need to extend their networks. Family members, relatives and friends outside work can also help promote their works.

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