In a recent (guest) blog post, Yehuda Lindell makes fun of (or maybe just complains about) “applying game-theoretic principles to our work as academics”. He lists several such strategic acts, starting with the well known principle of “least publishable unit” (LPU):
The first observation is that the “best strategy” is to write papers that are just good enough to get into the conference that you want, but no better. This way you minimize your work while maximizing your publications.
Even taking the totally cynical “rational” point of view, I doubt that this LPU strategy is “best” or even good. The LPU strategy may indeed be optimal if you want to maximize the number of your publications, but not at all if you want to get hired, get promoted, get grants, or other selfish utility measures. In most reasonable places, “paper counting” — especially of conference papers — is rarely significant. Reputation (of author and of the venue), letters, even citation counts (and impact factors) are used instead — and these all do not fare well under the LPU strategy.
So why do so many researchers seem to follow this strategy to some extent? Why do so many of us produce many mediocre papers rather than fewer good papers? I think that the reason is not game-theoretic: most researchers who trade-off quality for quantity are not trying to cynically optimize their career. They know that their many mediocre papers will fool no-one. Well, almost no-one: they do manage to fool themselves. Indeed producing a paper gives us a very concrete sense of achievement. We can add it to our CV, count it, tell our spouse that we wrote it, and in general have something specific to show for our work. It gives us the required psychological boost of success. A fake one, unfortunately, like some drugs do. The antidote: don’t fool yourself. Easier said than done, of course.