How many papers do you need to get tenure in a Science field at a major research university today?
Let's start by considering the minimum number: What is the lowest number of peer-reviewed articles that you can publish and still get tenure today in a Science department at a major research university in the US?
How about 6? Could someone get tenure with 6 publications, as long as these papers were in respected journals and weren't Least Publishable Units?
(I am referring here to Science fields in which journal articles are the main form of publication. To extend the question to some Engineering departments, perhaps this could also include reviewed papers for highly selective conferences.)
I think 6 publications might be sufficient if the funding record was very strong and there were indications of an upward trajectory now that funding was plentiful and students were on track and the teaching record was good and there had been invitations to speak at conferences and other universities. Sometimes the system will give you the benefit of the doubt, even if your publication record is thin.
Institutions vary on policies about whether the relevant n is the number of publications that represent new work accomplished since the time of the tenure-track appointment or whether n is an all-inclusive number going back to the candidate's first publication as a student. Ideally, both will be good numbers, but even if all publications count towards tenure, n(tenure-track) is more important. In my musing about n = 6 above, I was assuming that the 6 was n(tenure-track) and that the total number was higher.
There is of course a lot of focus on n, but the quality of the papers and journals does matter. If you are a minor co-author on 30 papers in journals that will publish anything, or if you have attained a high n by providing bits of data that others use (but without much involvement by you in the overall research, interpretation, writing), your impressive numbers might not seem so impressive when scrutinized.
So, if you don't want the tenure evaluation to be more stressful than it already is, you shouldn't publish too few papers or too many of the wrong sort. You should therefore figure out the magic number of substantial papers expected for your institution and discipline and that is just right for the amount of funding you have and the number of students and/or postdocs you are advising.
What is that number in your field?
Note that the magic number is not the same as the aforementioned lowest number. The magic number is the number of publications that would make the attainment of tenure fairly certain but that is, at the same time, a number that can reasonably be accomplished by a human being who occasionally sleeps and eats and has the usual amounts and types of logistical problems with students, facilities, colleagues, life. Assume that all or most of the publications are in respected journals and are more substantial than least-publishable-unit types of papers, and are therefore not the kind you can just write in an afternoon in a cafe no matter how many double espressos you have.
Is n <> 10?