In Defense of the Least Publishable Unit

February 09, 2004

A few months ago, I was sitting in my office, in my role as the dean of science at a four-year, up-and-coming college, talking with a young, up-and-coming faculty member about her research. We were meeting to talk about the syllabus for her new course, but naturally, the conversation wandered to her quest for tenure.

Before I knew it we were deep into a discussion of the "least publishable unit," or, as it's known in academe, the LPU. In order to appear to have more publications on their CVs, young scholars are often advised to break their research down into pieces and publish those pieces in multiple articles -- i.e., LPU's.

As we talked, my young colleague described the larger picture of her investigations in molecular biology, and how she believed they would lead to a major publication within the year. But she also acknowledged that she was working on a couple of smaller papers that could be submitted to second-tier journals and that were likely to appear quickly and with little revision.

In other words, she has taken the advice of her faculty mentors and produced LPU's while also pursuing the brass ring of a major publication in a leading journal.

I heard myself, from my deanly chair, praising her for taking this route. She is one of my most promising junior faculty members, and her tenure is not much in doubt. Still, our institution has a strong historical (albeit unwritten) "two for tenure" rule and a very short tenure clock.

Having a couple of LPU's will ensure that the bean counters cannot assail her record. We both know that there are those among us who would easily ignore her aggressive pursuit of grants and a single brilliant paper in Cell if her four years here did not include the magic two papers. She's a realist and so am I, and our meeting ended on a positive note. I was confident that she was exactly where she needed to be to achieve tenure this time next year, and she was confident that she was doing the right thing by generating some LPU's.

Driving home that evening, however, I kept hearing the nagging echo of my own voice, 14 years earlier as a first-year faculty member at Big Urban University, protesting to an informal faculty mentor who had tried to sell me on the concept of LPU's. This mentor was not part of my tenure and evaluation committee; he was merely the man whose signature course I had started teaching. Near retirement, he was also my academic uncle, having been trained in the lab of an internationally famous professor, who had also trained my main adviser.

Uncle Ludwig, as I'll call him, started nagging me from nearly my first day to find a way to generate some LPU's. His arguments were very similar to those that I found myself repeating to the young professor in my office.

Years ago, I had been righteously indignant at Uncle Ludwig's suggestion that "every paper can find a home," no matter how unimpressive. After all, hadn't my dissertation appeared in one of the best journals in my field? Hadn't my own major professor published relatively few papers, ones that were generally major works that provided fresh insight into old, intractable problems and appeared as 60-pagers in major journals? Why should I sully my record by stooping to publish a snippet of my work in a mediocre, unread outlet if I could accumulate more data, gain more insight, and be on the cover of a "real" journal? Isn't this sort of academic clutter leading to the exponential increase of the literature, at the expense of anyone's being able to keep up with all of it?

At the time, my protests against Uncle Ludwig's advice had the weight of my tenure and evaluation committee behind them. No one on that committee urged me to produce LPU's. After all, my institution was now a real research university, not the liberal-arts college it had been when Uncle Ludwig arrived nearly 40 years before. I needed major publications, and grants, and all the trappings of a thriving research career. My committee had insisted that one or two good publications in the Journal of Really Big Science would impress the dean at tenure time much more than a handful of LPU's.

So now I am the dean, albeit at an up-and-coming college rather than a top research university. Why am I nodding and smiling as this young professor describes her own LPU's? Why do I now sound much more like Uncle Ludwig?

Some of the reasons have to do, certainly, with the differences between the two institutions. The research university where I started my career was striving to enter the hallowed realm of Research I status, and so the credentials with which I squeaked through tenure there (two good publications in a very good journal, one very modest research grant) were barely adequate, and certainly would not get me tenure if I were starting a career there now. The college where I am a dean is primarily an undergraduate institution striving to establish good scholarship, in some appropriate quantity, as an expectation for tenure. Here, a couple of LPU's that include undergraduates in the list of authors are enough to earn tenure.

Another reason is that there are still those who do count beans. One thing I have learned as an administrator is that, while I may make the effort to discern quality in a faculty member's record, the further up the line the tenure or promotion package passes, the harder it is for administrators, or members of a faculty committee, to do that. Some don't even bother: When they look at this year's crop of tenure applicants, the one with six LPU's will stand out next to the one with a single major publication. The "numbers game" really does exist, often in unexpected pockets around the campus.

As my drive home progressed, I realized that there was another, more significant reason Uncle Ludwig's advice looked more sage now than it had in my first year on the tenure track. It had to do with the "big picture," the thing that keeps me interested in administration even when being a dean comes close to driving me crazy.

In this case, the big picture has to do with similarities between the situation of the young scholar in my office, Professor Up-and-Coming, and my own situation as a junior faculty member years ago. It has to do with how young faculty members juggle the expectations and demands of their academic careers with those of family life. Most of all, it has to do with developing self-confidence in an academic (or personal) arena that sometimes seems to be full of naysayers.

Professor Up-and-Coming is, as I was, a young woman in her first tenure-track job, with two small children at home. Her husband, unlike mine, is also an academic in science, but at a different institution. She trained, as I did, in some of the best labs in the nation, with some of the biggest names in her field. Now she's working, as I was, at an institution very different from the ones where she trained, in a department that contains both friends and foes, and in a tenure system that doesn't allow much time for getting on your feet. That system is fixed by union contract, while the expectations for faculty members are undergoing major changes across the college.

How is she supposed to balance all those conflicting factors? More important, how does she build self-confidence now that she's no longer a student, no longer part of a big lab with many other students and postdocs to reinforce her? How does she cope with those subtle and not-so-subtle voices, of her former colleagues, some of her current colleagues, and perhaps her family, that tell her (as they tell most women) that she isn't good enough, isn't working hard enough, isn't spending enough time with her work (or her kids, or her husband, or whatever)? How can she learn to trust her own voice, her own instincts, to value her own work as highly as she values the work of those around her? How does she learn to love herself in her role as a faculty member/mom/wife/person in the larger world, without measuring herself always against the harsh standards of others?

I submit that Uncle Ludwig was on to something -- that for Professor Up-and-Coming, the LPU can be a means of building self-confidence and self-worth as well as of building her CV and her tenure package. After all, the LPU is a tangible, if small, representation of real work done in a real lab with real students. It will be peer reviewed, and it will be in print, to show that a unit of work was accomplished. It is a unit of work that can be produced while teaching a 12-credit load, while devising new courses, while trading off child-care duties with a spouse at Big Private U., and while breastfeeding and enduring sleepless nights, emergency-room visits, and piles of poopy diapers.

Writing that LPU can be a refuge from an angry spouse, a crying baby. An LPU, honestly produced, will stand as a symbol of progress. Not big progress, not earthshaking discovery, but progress.

Moreover, the LPU will keep Professor Up-and-Coming writing. When we accumulate data for that big paper, there is a tendency to let it pile up until the inertia of unanalyzed, unphotographed, undigested data makes the prospect of sitting down to write it up almost overwhelming. That's true even at Truly Big University, that mythical Research I in the sky where the teaching load is only a course a semester and the grad students all work like slaves. At teaching-oriented institutions, there are always too many other things, like doing a good job in your courses, to keep you busy.

The knowledge that the big paper will also, almost certainly, require big revisions that will make it even bigger can seem like an insurmountable obstacle. That's when things in a young professor's life can get off track.

I know I suffered terribly from that kind of inertia during my tenure-track years. It seemed like my data were never good enough, never copious enough, never consistent enough to be worth writing up. It seemed like I would never have the time to contend with all the data alongside the mess of my personal life, my teaching, and my own needs for a bit of mental peace and quiet. I think now, from my perspective as a mentor as well as a judge of faculty members, that a few decent LPU's might save many of them from disaster. It might have put my own career on a very different trajectory in its early stages.

Of course, producing an LPU requires you to rethink your value system about publication. Valuing the LPU makes me wince at a question posed to me by an undergraduate mentor, "If you aren't going to be the scientist who makes the big discovery, why bother?"

The fact of the matter is that most science professors won't ever, despite accumulating rafts of data and publishing big papers, be more than bit actors in the drama of science. The vast majority of scientists at colleges and universities will contribute incrementally, and most of the work published in big journals will remain what one former mentor would call "neoclassical" papers -- seldom cited, seldom read.

Your most valuable contribution to science may not come solely, or even primarily, from the work you publish. What really matters may be the great course you teach that inspires dozens of students to pursue careers in science, or that makes a future stockbroker more scientifically conscious and conscientious when he trades shares, votes, or goes to the doctor. It may be the support you give to your institution that helps it maintain or increase the quality of its science program. It may be the support you give to a junior colleague who is struggling, just as you once struggled, to gain a foothold in academe.

I am forced to acknowledge that Uncle Ludwig had the right idea. He may have had a very limited idea of why the LPU was a good idea -- I doubt he considered those 4 a.m. diapers in the equation -- but he understood that, in the long view, a confidence-building, numbers-building start to a scientific career can be a fine thing. He understood that at the beginning of the race, gently applying the accelerator while firmly in first gear can keep you from stalling out. That meets my goals as a dean for my new faculty members, and it meets, I believe, our national goal to have more scientists in the pipeline.

Thanks, Uncle Ludwig. I needed that.

Whitney J. Owen is the pseudonym of a dean of science at a four-year college.