Stating your case: Reference group

Publish or Perish tutorial

When going up for promotion or tenure, it is usually a good idea to compare your case to a relevant group of peers. Many evaluators have very little idea of what typical norm scores for the various metrics are. So unless you make an explicit comparison, they will explicitly or implicitly use their own reference group, which might not necessarily work to your advantage.

Differences in citation behaviour between disciplines and sub-disciplines

There are vast differences in typical citation scores between disciplines, especially when using Thomson Reuters Web of Science, i.e. ISI, citation data. Therefore, if your university has a tenure or promotion process in which decisions are made by committees composed of people in related, or even unrelated disciplines, it is even more important to frame your case for tenure or promotion with an appropriate reference group.

Citation behaviours can also vary dramatically within disciplines or even within sub-disciplines. The area of Human Resource Management, as a sub-discipline of Management, includes scholars working on industrial relations and labour unions as well as scholars working on more psychologically oriented topics such as motivation or job attitudes.

HRM: from Organizational Behaviour to Industrial Relations

The latter academics, working in the field of organizational behaviour, might be able to publish in a mainstream Psychology journal such as Psychological Bulletin. The former academics would feel most fortunate if they published in the top US journal in their field: Industrial Relations. The ISI journal impact factor of Psychological Bulletin is about six times as high as the journal impact factor of Industrial Relations.

Contextual research is difficult to publish in mainstream US-American journals

Moreover, as their research is very contextual, many Industrial Relations academics will not be able to publish in mainstream US-American Industrial Relations journals. Hence they might need to publish their work in lower impact journals such as British Journal of Industrial Relations, European Journal of Industrial Relations, Asia Pacific Journal of Human Resources, or the Australian Labour History.

Citations rates in Industrial Relations lower than in Organization Behaviour

Therefore, we can expect any articles in the area of Industrial Relations to be cited far less frequently than articles in the area of Organizational Behaviour, which is more closely related to psychology.


The Publish or Perish screenshot above compares publications in Psychological Bulletin from 2010-2015 with a number of Industrial Relations journal and clearly shows how articles in the former can expect much higher citation rates. Looking at how your article compares with other articles in the journal is therefore generally a good strategy.

How to pick your reference group?

It is very important to pick your reference group wisely. Your reference group should be narrow enough to reflect any differences in citation behaviours across disciplines. However, it should not be so narrow that it leads your committee to discard your selection as biased or irrelevant. Generally, I have found two strategies to be particularly effective: the international discipline-based strategy and the institution-based strategy.

A: Discipline strategy: Comparison with academics in the same research field

For the first strategy, you compare your record with a representative selection of academics in your field of research at the level you are applying for. To make your case convincing, it is usually best to pick academics at institutions of similar or higher level of prestige. If you can show you are performing at the same level as academics in more prestigious institutions who have been in position for a while, you have a very strong case.

B: Institutional strategy: Comparison with academics in your own institution

The second strategy is a more local strategy. Here you compare your record with academics in your own institution at the level you are applying for. If you have access to the length of tenure of your academic colleagues, you might be able to compare your record with that of both long-established academics and of those recently promoted to the same level. This strategy might be particularly effective if your institution has more stringent norms for promotion than comparable institutions.

Ensure your reference group is large enough

Please note that you will normally need at least 3-4 academics in your reference group to be able to make a credible comparison and larger numbers are advisable. I would generally advise against listing names of individuals as this can easily lead to a hostile response. However, be prepared to substantiate your averages if so requested. You might wish to create folders for your reference groups in the Publish or Perish multi-query center, so that you can store and update analyses easily.

It is your job to convince the tenure or promotion panel!

In general, please realize that it is your job to convince and educate your tenure or promotion panel of the impact of your research. Many senior academics, having grown up in an age in which citation metrics were relatively unimportant, have a very limited knowledge of their own or other academics’ citation records. Moreover, in my experience many academics have the tendency to subconsciously overestimate what their own records were when they went up for tenure or promotion and hence are implicitly using an inappropriate reference group.

"Making your case" is crucial for many processes in academia

If you have an excellent record, you might think it is unfair to have to do all this work to get promoted. You might also think that senior academics should know better, but remember: they are only human and are very busy people. Furthermore, many processes in academia (e.g. further promotions, job applications, grant applications, applications for research awards, and applications for fellowships) depend on you making the case for the impact of your research. Hence it is not a bad idea to get some skills in “selling” your record!

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