Do sociology graduate students need to publish more today than their predecessors did a generation ago to get a faculty position? Do assistant professors aspiring to tenure need to publish more than was once expected?
In an article published in February 2019 in Sociological Science, I document publishing trends for new assistant professors at the time they began their first jobs over the 26-year period between 1991 and 2017. I also document trends in how much newly promoted associate professors had published at the time they were promoted. My results only pertain to the 342 new assistant professors and the 272 newly promoted associate professors in 21 of the top PhD-granting American sociology departments. In the article, I explain how I identified those new assistants and newly promoted associate professors, which departments are included among the 21, and how I counted each professor’s publications. The data and code used to produce my results are available at www.rob-warren.com/pub_trends.html.
In Figure 1a, I present trends over time documenting how much the 342 new assistant professors had published at the time they began their first jobs. New assistant professors in the most recent years publish roughly twice as much as their counterparts did in the 1990s. Much of this growth is due to an increase in peer reviewed articles, although there has also been growth in the numbers of book chapters and other publications. Whereas, the most recent cohort of new assistant professors averaged 4.8 peer-reviewed articles at their point of first employment, their counterparts in the early 1990s averaged only 2.5 articles.
Likewise, in Figure 1b, I present trends over time demonstrating how much the 264 newly promoted associate professors had published at the time of their promotions. Here, increases over time in publishing were more gradual—at least until the 2010s. However, publication patterns look different for newly promoted associate professors who had published zero books by the year they were promoted (“article people”) and those who had published at least one book (“book people”). Among article people, trends look more like those for new assistant professors: In the 2010s; they publish almost twice as many peer-reviewed articles as their counterparts in the 1990s. Among book people, the rise in publishing expectations has been much more gradual. However, even among book people the number of peer reviewed articles has risen; book people in the 2010s now publish as many articles as article people were publishing in the 1990s.
What Explains These Trends?
For new assistant professors, the growth—the doubling—of publication expectations appears to be driven by (a) the supply of new PhDs and the demand for new faculty and, perhaps, (b) technological advances that aid productivity. As shown in Figure 2, the number of new sociology PhDs awarded has increased by 50 percent since 1991, but the number of new assistant professor positions—at least in the top departments—has been basically flat (except for recession-era dips). Hiring committees have thus been able to be more selective and hold out for applicants with higher numbers of publications before they start their first faculty jobs.
Among newly promoted associate professors, these same conclusions both hold: (a) Increased supply and flat demand and perhaps (b) technological advances that aid author productivity each appear to have driven the increase in publication expectations. However, newly promoted associate professors’ publication counts have also increased over time because (c) the number of co-authors on their publications has grown. This inflates per-person publication counts without necessarily increasing the total quantity of published work.
I surmise that two basic market forces are at work, and that these forces—perhaps combined with increases in actual productivity—largely drive the trends seen in Figure 1. First, sociology departments are producing more PhDs, but (at least the top) departments are not hiring more new assistant professors or promoting more assistant professors to the associate level. There are a host of largely economic and fiscal reasons for these trends, having to do with the organization and financing of higher education. Second, over time sociologists have come to work more and more in interdisciplinary subfields. As I show in the Sociological Science article, the growth in the number of published articles over time is driven by increased publishing in journals outside of sociology—these are primarily journals in demography, public health, and public policy. The move toward working and publishing more in these interdisciplinary fields—which more often involve larger, grant-funded collaborative teams—has also increased the number of co-authors on newly promoted associate professors’ articles.
Of course, these two forces are likely related: As fiscal pressures on (especially public) universities and departments have increased, they may have found it easier and more financially beneficial to invest in hiring in areas in which it is possible to attract grant funds to support larger, collaborative, interdisciplinary projects. The financial pressures that (especially public) universities have faced in recent decades has led the supply of new sociology PhDs to outstrip demand and has also incentivized universities, departments, and individual sociologists to invest more heavily in interdisciplinary subfields that attract external grant money to campuses—and that also lead to multi-authored publications in inter-disciplinary or other-disciplinary journals.
Possible Impact on the Sociology Profession
The trends illuminated in my research article undoubtedly impact the professional environment for sociologists. First, on a basic human level, aspiring sociologists may be working harder, more quickly, and under greater pressure than ever before to achieve the same rewards—often with little additional resources. Second, potentially-talented scholars may consequently be driven from the profession as they find success costlier and less easily attainable. Third, rising publication expectations may aggravate inequalities within and between sociology departments. Well-resourced departments and those affiliated with well-funded research centers are often better equipped to give their graduate students and junior faculty the resources they need to meet heightened expectations to publish.
At the same time, within departments, the expansion of publishing expectations may favor scholars who work in article-oriented subfields and who typically perform quantitative analyses of existing secondary data over scholars who work in book-oriented subfields and/or who typically collect and perform qualitative analyses of original primary data. The former group may be better able to publish more and more quickly. Thus, the expectation to publish with greater frequency may incentivize junior scholars to work in subfields, design projects, and/or utilize methodologies that put them in a better position to publish. Finally, the quality of scholarship may decline as expectations for productivity and speed increase. Ideas and projects often take time to develop and mature, and the need to publish more and more quickly may erode the quality of research going forward.