Publish or Perish?

I’d like to add a short post about writing and publishing papers. The phrase “publish or perish” is commonly heard because there is some truth to it. According to Wikipedia, the phrase dates back to the 1930s and 1940s.

There are some advantages to having pressure to publish. By encouraging scientists to write and publish their research, they and their work become more widely known, including among their peers. As scientists, we enjoy and are excited about working on research and publishing the interesting and new results, and putting the papers out helps to advance the field.

When considering scientists for academic posts (or for research grants), it can be a difficult and time-consuming process. That’s unavoidable, especially when numerous people will apply for small numbers of jobs and grants. One clearly quantifiable metric by which academics are judged is the number of papers they’ve published (and another is the size of grants they draw in). As pointed out by this recent New Yorker blog, both the amount and style of writing are related to the constant pressure to publish and the tough academic job market. In addition, the job market now appears two-tiered, with part-time and adjunct faculty working long hours for lower pay (see these NY Times and Salon articles). I plan to talk about this issue further in another post.

There are some major disadvantages to the publish-or-perish culture. One problem is that it doesn’t leave time for long-term or risky research on controversial topics. It also doesn’t allow for exploring new ideas, issues, or collaborations that might not pan out and result in something publishable. Nonetheless, these things are good for scientists and they are good for science, and when they are successful, there are huge rewards or discoveries. For example, Peter Higgs, the Nobel prize-winning physicist who was one of the discoverers of the Higgs boson, says that no university would employ him in today’s academic system because he would not be considered “productive” enough. The publish-or-perish culture is not just dominant in the physical sciences, but also in the social sciences, humanities, and law.

A related issue is that of “luxury” journals like Nature, Science, and Cell. According to the Guardian, Randy Schekman, the Nobel prize-winning biologist is now no longer publishing in these journals because they distort the scientific process. He writes: “A paper can become highly cited because it is good science – or because it is eye-catching, provocative, or wrong.” These journals have become brand names, and they prioritize publishing provocative results–perhaps before they’ve been sufficiently tested and vetted by editors, peer reviewers, or the authors themselves. The result is that the journals have a reputation for publishing results that are often wrong. Scientists know this, yet publishing in these journals still carries prestige.

In addition to publishing papers and books, scientists work on other important things that should be valued too. Key among them is teaching, of course, as well as participating in outreach programs, mentoring students, communicating with journalists and policy-makers, and other academic service to the community. These activities are not as easily quantifiable as scientists’ publications, but we should make the effort to recognize this work.

2 thoughts on “Publish or Perish?

  1. Pingback: Thoughts on the Academic Job Market in the Physical Sciences | Science Political

  2. Pingback: A few thoughts on the peer-review process | Science Political

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