How to publish in top conferences/journals? (Part 2) – The opportunity cost of research

Many researchers wish to produce high quality papers and have a great research impact. But how? In a previous blog post, I have discussed how the “blue ocean strategy” can be applied to publish in top conference/journal. In this blog post, I will discuss another important concept for producing high impact research, which is to consider the opportunity cost of research.

Opportunity cost in research

Opportunity cost

The concept of opportunity cost is widely used in the field of economy. I will explain this concept and then explain how it can be applied to research. Consider a situation where you must choose between several mutually exclusive choices C1, C2, … Cn.  If you choose a choice Cx, then you cannot choose the other choices because they are mutually exclusive with Cx.  Thus, by making a choice Cx, you may be getting some benefits, but you may miss other benefits that could be obtained when making other choices. In other words, when we make a choice in a given situation, we not only get the rewards or benefits that goes with that choice but we also lose other benefits that we could have obtained if we had made other choices.  The opportunity cost for making a choice Cx is thus the lost of benefits caused by not making other alternative choices.

Applying the concept of opportunity cost in research

The concept of opportunity cost is simple but very useful in many domains, and considering it allows to take better decisions. When making a choice between multiple alternatives, we should not only think about the direct benefits of that choice but also at the missed opportunities from other alternative choices (the opportunity cost).

How does that applies to research?  Well, in research, a researcher has multiple resources (times, money, students). In terms of time, when a researcher decides to spend time on a given project, he may as a result not have time to work on alternative research projects. Thus, given the limited amount of time that a researcher has, he must carefully choose between multiple research opportunities to maximize his benefits.

For example, it is tempting for several young researchers to write several papers with simple an unoriginal ideas, just to publish papers as quickly as possible. This may seems like a good idea in the short term. However,  the hidden opportunity cost of doing so is that the time spent on writing these simple papers cannot be spent to work on better research ideas that take more time to develop but may result in a higher impact on the long term.

Thus, from the perspective of opportunity cost, a researcher should try to choose carefully the research projects that are promising and spend more time to develop these projects and make good papers out of it, rather than to try to write as many papers as possible.

From my experience, even the most simple conference papers requires at least 1 or 2 weeks of work that could be spend on better research projects. The fastest paper that I have written for a conference was done in about 1 week, several years ago. But still,  even if it only takes a week, one should not forget that additional time needs to be spent to travel, prepare a PowerPoint, and present the paper at a conference. Thus, totally, the cost in terms of time for a quick conference paper may still add up to two weeks or more. And then, as explained, the opportunity cost of writing a simple paper is that one may not have enough time to work on better or more promising research ideas.  Thus, in recent years, I have shifted my focus to target better conferences and journals and focus less on smaller conferences.  I write less papers but these papers are of higher quality and can have a greater impact.

Of course, many other factors must be considered to publish high quality papers such as the choice of a good research topic. But in this blog post, I wanted to highlight the concept of opportunity cost.


In this blog post, I have highlighted how opportunity cost is applicable to research in academia. I personally think that it is an important concept, as many researchers are tempted to publish as many papers as possible without focusing much on quality, and often without realizing that that time could be spent on better research ideas. But producing high impact research requires to spend a considerable amount of time. Thus, one should carefully chose to spend more time on promising projects, rather than focusing too much on quantity. Besides time, the concept of opportunity cost is also applicable to other kinds of resources such as funding and students.

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