A post on r-strategy would have been more appropriate for Talk Like a Pirate Day

Fri 12 Oct 2012 01:12 PM

In a post over at Crooked Timber, John Quiggin invokes the distinction between scholars who follow a K-strategy and those that follow an r-strategy. K-strategists focus their attention on a small number of finely honed publications, which they aim to place in the most prestigious journals. Conversely, r-strategists write on many topics and publish widely.* I had not encountered these labels before, but they nicely tag a distinction I am familiar with.

Quiggin comments, "Academic prestige these days goes mostly to those who follow ... a K-strategy.... And the narrower the specialisation, the better.... For K-strategy people, second-tier publications are worse than valueless." I know a number of philosophers who fit this description. For most of them, though, it does not represent a strategic choice. Rather, they are told to behave this way by people in the department that hired them. They expect that second-tier publications will be counted as demerits when it comes to tenure and promotion. This has the perverse effect that they often abandon papers which ought to be published in the straight forward sense that other people would benefit by reading them. Sometimes a conference paper is abandoned without being submitted to a journal, because it does not look like something JPhil would publish. Sometimes a finished paper is abandoned after being rejected by a few prestigious journals, even though those journals are so overwhelmed by submissions that they typically reject even fine papers. This perversity is compounded when, as sometimes happens, these unreflective K-strategy scholars get denied tenure because they have not published enough.

Of course, most academics are not ruthlessly pursuing academic prestige. Instead, they are attempting either to get an academic job or survive in the niche of the academic job that they have acquired. Scholars without a job or at a job that they would like to escape would rationally try to fit their profile to what they imagine hiring committees want. Scholars with a tenure-track job that they like would rationally to fit their publishing profile to the tenure expectations at their institution.

As is obvious from my CV, I am an unalloyed r-strategist. And fortunately I have a job I like in a department which has broad expectations. Rather than dismissing me for being dilettante, the worst anyone did was overlook the publications which they considered too twee; counting the remainder, I still looked fine.

* By poking around on-line, I learned that the labels are used by economists discussing how academic prestige is generated in economics. The first use I could find in this vein was Faria (2003). But the terminology is adapted from ecology where, according to Wikipedia, it was introduced by Robert MacArthur and E. O. Wilson in the 1960s.


from: John Quiggin

Fri 12 Oct 2012 07:25 PM

Aarrr! By prestige, I meant to encompass employment prospects. I've updated to reflect this.

Also, I imagined I was being original with the r-strategy stuff, but the Internet immediately exposes all such beliefs as illusions. Thanks for the link to Faria

from: P.D.

Fri 12 Oct 2012 09:31 PM

John: I had figured it was a standard idiom for economists. And since Faria treats prestige just as influence, measured by citations, I read your comments in the same vein.