Within the framework of global knowledge production in communication , both the productivity of individual scholars and the prestige-positions of academic journals of the field have been widely investigated [2, 34, 46]. An extensive research deals with the content analysis of per reviewed international journals [3, 29], citation networks [38, 47], and the topical fragmentation of the field [40, 41]. However, a detailed analysis of the actual publication trajectories of the best-performing researchers and an inductive determination of their most popular publication outlets is still missing. Assuming that top-performing scholars might serve as role models for the whole scientific community , this paper aims to scrutinize the publication trajectories, the most popular publication outlets and the main thematic clusters (research hubs) of the most productive communication scholars. Our results provide two general contributions to the ongoing discussion of publication trends, productivity, and research assessment within communication studies and beyond.
First, when research excellence is discussed in the literature, the question of quality versus quantity frequently emerges. It would be in keeping with common sense to assume that publishing less papers would correlate with high quality, since scholars with an infrequent publication pace can dedicate more time to their research. Consequently, they can publish richer and more sophisticated papers. If this were the case, empirical evidence should show that scholars with high productivity publish in less selective journals. However, several studies refute this theory by providing empirical evidence that demonstrate that higher productivity is positively associated to higher impact, as measured by citation counts. In line with these research directions, we scrutinized the publication strategies of the most productive scholars in communication, and, based on our empirical analysis, our findings fully support the assumption that quantity goes hand in hand with quality.
Specifically, almost 90 percent of papers by top authors were published in the top (Q1) quartile of Scopus, while there was a minimal proportion (less than 1 percent) of publications in the lowest (Q4) quartile. Moreover, all the top performing authors had at least one paper in a Q1 journal. Also, 97 percent had at least one paper in one of the D1 journals (representing the top 10 percent of communication journals), and three-quarters of the authors had at least one paper in one of the top 10 journals in the field (representing the top 2 percent of all indexed periodicals). Therefore, results show not only that all the most productive authors were able to publish at the top level, but also demonstrated that most of them were able to publish in the most selective journals of the field.
By computing a pool of the most productive scholars, two challenging distortions emerge by serendipity. Accordingly, our second contribution lies in the examination of misleading research assessments when scholars, without careful criticism, take scientometric data at face value. The first type of distortion relates to categorization itself, since very different branches of research can be classified under the single label of “communication”. Specifically, scholars in engineering and computer science, who typically work on information processing topics, are classified as communication scholars, even though they are not. Not surprisingly, the number of engineers amongst the top 100 scholars was significant (n = 29). This pattern may be explained by the fact that engineers do not only publish in journals but also in Scopus-indexed conference proceedings .
Communication engineers form a different academic network from communication. This rational assumption is mainly backup by two instances: 1) none of the top 100 scholars who publish in engineering journals and conference proceedings have ever published in communication journals within social sciences, and vice versa, and 2) no prior scholarship dealing with the classification of different scholarly fields within communication considers communication engineering as a subfield [2, 3, 34, 35, 38, 41].
The second contribution of this paper is related to the research tradition that investigates so-called fragmentation  or balkanization  of communication studies. Our results show that there are robust self-loops for publication trajectories in the case of several high-profile journals. Self-loops refer to cases where authors publish in the same journal repeatedly. When the presence of these self-loops is significant, it can mean that there is a remarkable number of platforms that publish specific research that is not typically published elsewhere.
However, explanations of the presence of strong self-loops should not be simplistic, since there are several potential causes for this phenomenon. For example, in the case of Communications Sciences and Disorders, self-loops might be due to the fact that the journal is published in Korea, and, according to Scopus data, 97 percent of the papers published here are written by Korean scholars. In this case, cultural and regional impermeability can explain self-loops for both the journal and for the most productive authors of the journal. In our sample, those authors that publish in this journal might be very productive, but their production is limited to their intensive publication in Communication Sciences and Disorders, without publishing elsewhere. Another example is Communication Education. While 90 percent of its authorship works in the US, it is the limitation of topical interest of the journal, and not geopolitical closedness that most likely explains tis self-loops.
Finally, there are instances where self-loops might be an indicator of selectivity bias. In other words, some journals may publish much more papers than similar journals in the field. This is the case of both Health Communication, that publishes 5 or 6 times more papers annually than the Journal of Health Communication, and International Journal of Advertising, that publishes, on average, twice as many papers as the Journal of Advertising. Consequently, less selective journals tend to form self-loops because authors prefer them due to the greater potential success of publishing their papers, as contrasted to their chances with more selective periodicals.
Besides the presence of self-loops, relatively autonomous hubs also point to the balkanization of the field . Our results show that the publication trajectories of the most productive scholars form 4 interconnected networks, of which three are relatively separate hubs and one is more embedded. The first relatively separate hub is formed around Health Communication, a journal which also has very strong self-loops. However, it is strongly interconnected with International Journal of Health Communication – a less selective journal with the same focus. More interestingly, it has also relatively tight links to the top-tier journal Human Communication Research, most likely because they both have a focus on human communication. While both human communication and health communication have the human agent as their focal points, earlier studies typically do not mention human communication as a distinguished cluster in communication research. Waisbord , for example, enumerates several research clusters that deal with human communication, but his classification is based on the type, the mode, the medium or the aim of communication, and not on the main agents involved.
Another relatively autonomous cluster developed around Communication Education, which has strong ties with Communication Teacher, a journal with a similar focus (both are published by the National Communication Association). Interestingly, there are several journals with a more general focus that are connected to Communication Education. It is noteworthy that all these journals are published by one of the regional American communication associations. These periodicals are Communication Studies and Western Journal of Communication, published by the Western States Communication Association, Communication Research Reports, Communication Quarterly and Qualitative Research Reports in Communication by the Eastern States Communication Association, and Communication Studies by the Central States Communication Association. Thus, the existence of this cluster can be explained by the fact that official communication associations are committed not just to communication research, but also to communication education, and thus their journals are open to papers that focus on this specific topic.
Journals that focus on advertising and public relations form another distinguished cluster with two main journals: The Journal of Advertising and the International Journal of Advertising, besides the Journal of Advertising Research. Through the International Journal of Advertising, there is a strong connection with a relatively separate sub-cluster with a public relations focus; this is formed around Public Relations Review, and it involves journals such as the International Journal of Strategic Communication and the Journal of Communication Management.
Finally, the most complex cluster has a focus on journalism and media studies. In terms of publication outlets for the most productive scholars, this is the most important and most extensive cluster within the field. It contains more than a dozen high-profile journals with strong ties between them, but the cluster is also connected with most journals with different research foci. However, there are four journals in a salient position within the cluster, namely Journalism, Journalism Studies, Journalism Practice and Digital Journalism. The very strong connections suggest that authors who publish in the field of journalism most likely publish in these journals alternately, and the most productive authors within this specific field publish in all of them.
A fifth journal, New Media and Society should be also mentioned, but it is slightly different since its ties to the other four journals are looser, with the strongest connections to Journalism Studies and Digital Journalism. It is noteworthy that the oldest journal in the field, Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly is not a salient part of this cluster as we might suppose, based on the shared research focus. It has, although low-weighted, ties to Journalism and Journalism Studies, but not to other important journals of the field such as Journalism Practice or New Media and Society.
It is also noteworthy that, while the journalism hub has extensive connections to journals beyond this specific hub, it is relatively closed if we consider primary relations only (Fig. 8). In this case, the journalism hub consists of only 14 journals, all the other journals connect to the hub through some general journals such as the International Journal of Communication and Communication Research. Moreover, Global South journals such as the Chinese Journal of Communication, the Asian Journal of Communication, African Journalism Studies and their Latin-American counterparts such as the Brazilian Journalism Research or Comunicacion y Sociedad Mexico, connect to the hub by relatively weak ties. Thus, when we consider only those journals that have at least 5 primary connections to the journalism hub, all Global South journals disappear (Fig. 8).
Besides outlining the main clusters where the most productive scholars publish, our analysis also offers information on the possible trajectories between different journals. Clusters tell in which journals a specific kind of author publishes regularly and directed edges can also tell the most typical order of publication. Journals with more in-degree but less out-degree are those in which it is easier to publish than in other journals with a similar focus. The position of these target journals can be explained either by their higher annual number of publications or by their lower ranking position (these two features are typically, but not always, interrelated). The opposite holds for those periodicals that have higher out-degree than in-degree values, such as the Journal of Communication. Notwithstanding, these assumptions are tentative, since we do not have information on the number of papers submitted, but only on the number of published articles. Still, if we hypothesize that the authors’ intention to publish is the same in the case of all journals, and assuming similar ranking positions and selectivity, then, within the same field, it is easier to publish in those journals that publish more papers.
In conclusion, given the growing importance of productivity as a currency for assessing research excellence, this study attempts to provide an overview of the publication trajectories of the most productive communication scholars. We found that scholars that publish the most also publish in the best journals. Thus the “publish or perish” paradigm calls not only for quantity, but also for quality. We also found that the balkanization of the field is a phenomenon that can be spot not just on a general level, but also on the level of the most productive scholars. As opposed to previous studies that build their analysis on a set of predetermined journals, we identify the most salient journals in which leading scholars publish. Results support the relevance of this approach in two respects.
First, we found that top scholars generally publish in those periodicals that are considered as top-tier journals. Our analysis thus confirms the appropriateness of journal rankings in communication studies. Second, our analysis uncover some distortions in current methods for research assessment, as a consequence of categorization problems. Based on our results, we suggest that when evaluating scientific performance, special care should be taken to examine not only scientometric records, but also individual publication trajectories, which must also be compared with the general publication pattern of the discipline.