More and more, all evaluation agencies and the research community as a whole is evolving to reward quality over quantity. All recent research assessment manifests (e.g DORA) clearly push for a qualitative evaluation where plain numbers (total amount of publications, citations,…) should not be driving the evaluation. I do agree with this principle. Otherwise, we all learn how to “game” the metrics to maximize our numbers (Goodhart’s law).

But we should also be careful not to chase breakthrough innovations all the time. First, because most researchers would fail and end up burning out. But also because, the only way to produce excellent research is to produce lots of “non-excellent”, i.e. incremental, works. 

At least this is the message I got from reading the book Originals – How Non-conformists move the world by Adam Grant.

People generate their most original output during the periods in which they produce the periods in which they produce the largest volume. It’s widely assumed that there’s a tradeoff between quantity and quality – if you want to do a better work, you have to do less of it – but this turns out to be false. When it comes to idea generation, quantity is the most predictable path to quality.

You could argue that we could still produce a high research volume but that we should restrict from publish anything else but the top work disregarding all the “minor” contributions. But I don’t think this is feasible nor desirable. To begin with, even minor contributions are indeed contributions. And once they are out they may turn out to be in a fact a major breakthrough (or inspire others to continue the work and achieve such major innovation). Also, many young researchers cannot afford to stay without publishing for years, waiting for their next disruptive result. And let’s not forget that for most of them, attending or participating in conferences is only financially possible when they have something to present to justify the trip, so publishing is a requirement to be active members of the community and learn from their peers.

Do not set for quantity as a goal but understand quantity is your path to quality and both are important!