Factors Affecting Research Productivity

In academia, research productivity is commonly measured by the number of publications. Publication can be in the form of paper, patent, conference abstract, or video presentation. All these works are typically peer-reviewed, meaning that they must undergo a review process by experts in the field before being published.

I started my research journey in chemical engineering field since my undergraduate (i.e., in the third year). It was a simulation-based research using a software—the research was about reactive distillation for biodiesel production via esterification reaction. In my fourth year, I had to work on the final project called plant design, which was done in a group of three. Even though it is called “design,” but, in fact, we had to do a lot of research.

Both of my undergraduate projects mentioned above gave me a taste of research in engineering world. However, none of these works are published for international audience; they are written in Indonesian, my native language.

It was when I started my master in South Korea that I could advance my sense of research. The research was about sugar production from hydrolysis of lignocellulosic biomass, done in two years (August 2012 – July 2014). My first ever scientific paper was published from this work in an international journal.

After getting my master’s degree, I worked as a researcher for another two years (August 2014 – July 2016) in the same institution. During a two-year of research, in a totally different project, i.e., on solid acid catalyst design for aromatics production via Diels-Alder and dehydration, with a new supervisor, we could publish three research articles.

In my PhD, I again worked on a new and different project, i.e., electrochemical upgrading of biomass derivatives, under the supervision of three professors. Over a four-year of research (September 2016 – November 2020), we managed to publish two research articles and a review paper.

Putting all together, I have so far seven first-authored papers within eight years (2012 – 2020). This means that the rate of publication is approximately a paper per year. Is this considered high rate, normal rate, or low rate? I am not 100% sure.

But, this is what inspires me to write this blog post. (Of course, based on the nearly a decade experience of research.)

There are many factors affecting research productivity, but not all of them have the same significance to different persons. For instance, the size of the research group might be more or less influential to some than to others. I will elaborate more on this later.

Here is my perspective on the factors affecting research productivity and, of all the many factors, I would like to mention five, which, in my opinion, are important to address and a combination of internal and external factors as follows:

1. Writing capabilities

This is not only about English proficiency—although we need to have fundamentally strong grammatical skills with rich vocabulary in order to be an independent writer. I believe writing is about storytelling, but it also has a sense of “cooking” abilities. We can produce different quality of articles from the same ingredients (i.e., references). High quality articles do not demand too much “spices.” (Remember, not all fried chicken are on the same level.) A concise-but-comprehensive article is usually preferred. (Sometimes people like drinking orange juice better than eating orange fruit.)

These writing skills also essentially include good logical reasoning, creativity, problem mapping, and ultimately, passion and perseverance. My philosophy is that writing is a service (to the readers), thus I strive to write as clearly as possible in the ways that are organized, engaging, and easy to digest. In my view, even writing a scientific article is an art—so you have to pour out your heart to it.

2. Research facilities

It is understandable that research facilities, including instrumentations, equipment, and other infrastructure, directly determine the research outcome. More diverse facilities allow more dynamic research. Sometimes, researchers have ideas, but could not execute them due to limitations in the facilities. In my field, without instrumentations and equipment, research activity will be greatly hindered. (This will also be the case for all experiment-based researches, which rely heavily on the infrastructure for data collection and analysis.)

Ultimately, the size of research facilities is largely dependent on the research funding. In this regard, the role of government is pivotal. The willingness and abilities of the research group leaders (i.e., principal investigators) to expand their networks and find investors could also play an important role.

3. Research environment

As I indicated earlier, the size of the research group could affect the productivity. Bigger research group means more collaborators, and this will allow people to work together and share their data to make a single nice story which could potentially have a greater impact. Of course, this can be done in a supporting rather than competing culture where people can interact actively with trust and respect. In such a scenario, publishing one article per year is perhaps too little as each researcher would have a chance to be the co-author of multiple papers.

In my experience, I have so far been part of relatively small research groups, thus I have to mostly write articles as the first author. By research environment, I also mean the accessibility to the facilities and the availability of training program to the new workers. It is the PI’s responsibility to ensure that the work climate is sufficiently conducive to promote the productivity and to reach the goals of the team. Importantly, a good relationship between research students and their supervisors is indispensable for a fruitful collaboration reflected in the number of publications over the years.

4. Research nature

The type of research is a significant factor, which can be based on simulation (computational), analytical, statistical, and/or experimental approaches. I heard it is more challenging to publish in the simulation type of research which demands a complete set of story based on the evidently successful outcome. If the programming did not work out, then simply no publications. So, the field of research does matter. In my field, which is based on wet experiments, we can divide the story into fraction or smaller pieces with elaborated results and discussion.

For instance, my master’s research focused on fractionation of biomass into sugars by high concentration of sulfuric acid. This work could already be published even though the overall complete picture is actually about biomass conversion to ethanol, in which the latter is produced via fermentation of sugars. However, experimental researches cannot be done remotely—in contrast to the other types (e.g., statistical or analytical) which might even be conducted from home. The nature of the research itself is undoubtedly influential toward the productivity.

5. Researcher conditions

Just as experimental results are affected by the operating conditions, research outcomes are also influenced by the researcher conditions—in addition to the research conditions discussed earlier. I do not mean this as an excuse if we are not getting the results we expected (i.e., high publication rate). In fact, we cannot blame the situations, but we cannot also deny the consequences resulting from those situations. Hence, I believe that great researchers are characterized by perseverance and endurance. The researcher conditions may include marital status (single or family), residence location (on-campus or off-campus), personal health (physical and mental), and priority (focus and responsibilities). All these factors would determine one’s work efficiency.

A real life example: During my master, I lived on campus—it took only about five minutes from my dormitory to the lab and I was a single student. In contrast, during my PhD, I lived off campus (with my spouse), which took almost an hour by bus to get there (for a single journey, so approximately two hours for round trip) and, additionally, from the bus stop to the lab was about 10 to 15 minutes walking distance. So, in total, I spent almost three hours on the road every day. That’s why I had to use different strategies between my master and PhD studies. The first three years of my PhD research were highly inefficient and I felt a lot of time had been wasted if concerning the number of publications. Thankfully, I managed to catch up in the fourth year and my first PhD paper was published in December 2019, followed by the second one in May 2020, and the third one in October 2020. And, finally, my dissertation was published online in February 2021.

Thanks be to the Almighty for giving me strength. And, obviously, supports from my supervisors and colleagues are gratefully acknowledged.

As a closing remark, let me share my two cents that might hopefully be helpful to enhance your research productivity as graduate students (based on what I have learned thus far and assuming you do not have many chances for collaborations):

  • Practice writing. I mean, consistently. Learn how to properly use English grammars from many examples available on the internet. (As a non-native speaker of English, I strive to make my English sound more natural.)
  • Read a lot. This will enrich your vocabulary and give you a better sense in constructing sentences for a well-structured story.
  • If you have good writing skills, but your lab has limited research facilities, consider to allocate more time for writing review articles to keep up your productivity.
  • Have a good strategy and direct your experiments toward publications. Once you have a clear objective, make a plan or timeline and set daily or weekly goals. Focus your energy on it, motivate yourselves often. Track your progress.
  • Know your “rate-limiting step.” It can be the experimental design or manuscript writing process. If you are very good at writing, normally you want to spend more time on the experimentation (including data analysis). Otherwise, start writing earlier.
  • Prepare the best version of your first draft of paper for internal review by your supervisor(s). This first draft should include all elements of a paper ready for submission to a journal. Be strict with your formatting and spelling. Treat your readers as your customers, thus do a good “customer service.”
  • Enjoy the entire process and be positive. Believe that your hard work will pay off in the end.

Happy researching and writing!

Vancouver, May 2021.

P.S. The list of the aforementioned paper publications can be seen here or here.

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