Can early-career scholars publish high-impact research?


Is being at an early stage in one’s career a limiting factor in publishing high-impact articles? According to a recent study published in the Academy of Management Learning and Education – not at all. The authors of the article, Podsakoff and colleagues (2018), find that over half of the authors of the greatest hits in the field of management were early-career scholars, while over 50% of pre-tenured authors were sole authors or lead authors of their articles. This is a very interesting finding and worth delving a little bit deeper into.

Doctoral students, in higher education, management, or any other field, often encounter contradictory advice about the kind of research to focus on. They are either told that working on high-impact research in their pre-tenure years is the best strategy. Due to professional responsibilities and teaching requirements, many professors lack the availability of time that doctoral students can dedicate to research. Or, they are told that being ambitious in this sense is risky and it may mean less chance to get results published anywhere at all. Consequently, doctoral students are recommended to concentrate on research with more predictable results that guarantee a win in the publication game. So, what should junior researchers do?

To explore the characteristics of high-impact articles, and examine whether it is typical for junior scholars to publish great hits in the field of management, Podsakoff and colleagues searched Web of Science for papers with at least 1,000 citations in 33 management journals.

What did Podsakoff and colleagues find?

First, the authors found that 78% of high-impact articles were published in only seven journals, including the Academy of Management Review, Administrative Science Quarterly, Strategic Management Journal, and the Academy of Management Journal. Second, high-impact research usually attracts attention from different research areas, not only from management. The number of research areas that cite highly-cited articles is approximately five times greater than that of the sample of typical articles. The number of unique journals is also significantly greater for high-impact articles. Those same results were found in sociology in that the greatest books and articles receive a majority of their citations from outside the discipline in which they were written (Clemens et al., 1995). Third, theoretical papers make up the largest proportion of high-impact articles.

Of particular interest is that the authors of high-impact articles were oftentimes in earlier stages of their career. More than 50% of such authors published their high-impact article within the first seven years of their academic career, and the majority of them published only one significant hit. Doctoral students may be glad to learn that 25% of early-career authors published their greatest hits before they graduated from their doctoral programs. These findings indicate that junior scholars are not only capable of making important contributions to the field of management, but young academics are actually overrepresented compared to faculty members in their middle and later stages of their careers.

Should this success rate be attributed to senior scholars who may have done the real work while junior scholars performed the role of research assistants? An analysis examining the order of authorship and the career stage of the lead co-author shows that 22% of pre-tenured academics were the sole author of high-impact research, while another 29% served as the lead author. This means that success occurs not only by working exclusively with senior faculty members.

What could be the implications of these findings?

The authors use the results of the study to generate a list of recommendations for supervisors to help junior scholars publish more high-impact research. The list of recommendations ranges from communicating expectations for students to publish in top-tier journals even at the beginning of their career to promoting examples of other individuals who experienced success early in their careers.

The other important conclusion is to train more in developing the criteria and elements of good theories. The authors recommend several books on this topic that provide a set of techniques to help authors put their ideas to paper (Elbow, 1998). On Genre: A Few More Tips to Article-Writers also provides excellent examples on how to frame contributions to a paper (Zuckerman, 2017).

What should doctoral students take away after reading the paper by Podsakoff and colleagues? First, you are capable of publishing high-impact research even before graduation. Second, put more effort into publishing in top-tier journals. The advantages regarding citations are worth going through a long peer-review process. Third, think about the topic carefully. The area should be broad enough to attract attention beyond the primary field. Be ready to devote enough time to properly frame the main contribution.

However, we should bear in mind that the scope of these recommendations is limited by the period of time. To acquire more than 1,000 citations takes a long time, especially in the social sciences. In fact, authors describe previous publication patterns while making recommendations for actual junior scholars as the academic market has shifted from a seller’s market to a buyer’s market, resulting in an escalation of performance standards (Perrucci, O’Flaherty & Marshall, 1983). A consequence of this is choosing the conservative strategy of making incremental contributions to established research directions, which may be detrimental to the high-risk, high-reward strategy of conducting high-impact research (Foster, Rzhetsky & Evans, 2015).

What does this mean for the early-career higher education scholars?

If we look at impact factor alone, the field of higher education research, like that of management, has its own higher and lower ranked outlets. Indeed, higher education journals do not rank as high as management ones (for reasons which go beyond this article). However, we could adapt the method employed by Podsakoff et al. to study the characteristics of top-cited articles in higher education journals and we would probably arrive to similar conclusions: all things being equal, being in early stage of your career is in itself not necessarily a limiting factor to publishing papers which will be highly impactful over time.

Having had this one sorted out, maybe it’s high time we started a conversation about what the real limiting factors actually are for early-career (higher education) scholars to publish impactful research for years to come.


Clemens, E. S., Powell, W. W., McIlwaine, K., & Okamoto, D. (1995). Careers in Print: Books, Journals, and Scholarly Reputations. American Journal of Sociology, 101(2), 433–494.

Elbow, P. (1998). Writing with Power: Techniques for Mastering the Writing Process. New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Foster, J. G., Rzhetsky, A., & Evans, J. A. (2015). Tradition and Innovation in Scientists’ Research Strategies. American Sociological Review, 80(5), 875–908.

Perrucci, R., O’Flaherty, K., & Marshall, H. (1983). Market Conditions, Productivity, and Promotion among University Faculty. Research in Higher Education, 19(4), 431–449.

Podsakoff, P. M., Podsakoff, N. P., Mishra, P., & Escue, C. (2018). Can Early-Career Scholars Conduct Impactful Research? Playing “Small Ball” Versus “Swinging for the Fences”. Academy of Management Learning & Education, 17(4), 496–531.

Zuckerman, E. (2017). On Genre: A Few More Tips to Article-Writers.

Katerina Guba is a lead researcher at the Centre for Institutional Analysis of Science and Education, European University at St. Petersburg, Russia. In 2015, she defended her thesis on the comparative analysis of the journal publishing market in American and Russian sociology. You can follow Katerina on Twitter.

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