Why won’t academia let go of ‘publish or perish’?
When I was a graduate student and, later, a postdoctoral researcher, I would ask senior scientists what I could do to best position myself for a tenure-track faculty position. Their response, repeated almost verbatim to a person, was deceptively simple: Just keep writing papers.
“Publish or perish” has become a mantra in academia, a tongue-in-cheek recognition of the sad state of academic affairs, and a not-so-subtle warning of the brutal expectations of the profession’s various gatekeepers. The words embody the irresistible pressure to publish as many papers as possible, as if that were the central — if not sole — measure of a researcher’s merit. The more you publish, the more likely you’ll seemingly advance, get tenure, win grants, and gain accolades.
Scientists and others have been calling out the shortcomings of this narrow-minded approach for more than a decade. They’ve noted how the insatiable need to feed the academic beast with ever more papers pushes scientists to sacrifice quality for quantity, leading to rushed, shoddy, and even fraudulent research. They’ve explained how this pressure has led to the rise of so-called “predatory journals,” which offer little-to-no barriers to publication for a price (although for many scientists outside of mainstream research centers, these journals can be one of the only ways to gain recognition). And critics have also pointed out how publish or perish results in the gaming of the publication system, with scientists seeking to gain as high a “score” as possible — as measured by publication metrics like h-indices — ignoring the principles of scientific integrity in the process.
Some of these same scientists have proposed concrete solutions and recommendations for preventing fraud and protecting research integrity. Notable examples include the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment, in which signatories support avoiding mere journal rankings as a measure of research success, or the Hong Kong Principles, which, among other avenues to increase the integrity of science, encourage member institutions to employ a broader range of metrics for measuring success.
Yet here we are, years later, and nothing much has changed. Predatory journals still run rampant. Fraud is on the rise. Scientists remain suspicious of the integrity of their colleagues’ work. And yup, you still need to publish to get ahead. While department chairs may argue that they have a holistic approach to hiring and promotion, their recipes can be a closely guarded secret — and only one American university has signed onto the San Francisco Declaration. What’s going on?
I believe that progress in reforming the publication and advancement model in science has stalled because the vast majority of scientists are too entrenched in the current system to do anything about it. It’s a trap of inertia that has locked in incentive structures for everyone, from first-year graduate students to full professors. Although most of them mean well, and would probably prefer a more just and sane reward model, the system — an entire hiring, promotion, and award apparatus constructed around the locus of publish or perish — is just too big for any individual to fight.
The senior scientists who advised me years ago to “just keep writing papers,” for instance, were almost certainly giving their honest assessment. They were told that they needed to publish a lot of papers, they did, and they got jobs. They won their positions in the current system, and because the system worked for them, they naturally didn’t feel any tremendous urge to change how things work.
Young scientists, on the other hand, typically want a different system and are willing to try new ideas. But they can’t change the system from within because they’re too busy just trying to survive: They’re told the rules of the game — publish more than your peers — and if they decide not to play by those rules, they will be passed over in faculty searches for peers who do.
And then there’s the academic publishing machine, which pulls in tens of billions of dollars of annual revenue and enjoys profit margins that would make an oil baron blush. The have little, if any, incentive to encourage scientists to publish less, as that would directly impact their bottom line.
And so the calls for reform of the publish-or-perish model are met with resigned shrugs and exhausted repetitions of this is just the way it is.
As a scientific community, we prioritize publication above everything else because it’s an easy, lazy way to filter out the rafts of applicants competing for seemingly every open position, grant, and award. Ultimately, we need to recognize that this is an institutional issue operating at all levels, from grant funders to graduate students, and that the only way to solve this is through systematic reform, which takes both time and determination.
There are some promising signs that science is moving the right direction, albeit slowly. Some departments at some universities are beginning to embrace a holistic and transparent approach to hiring, counting cross-collaboration, outreach, and leadership elements. And institutions like Syracuse University, along with departments and programs within other universities, such as the City University of New York, deserve some credit for at least signing the San Francisco Declaration. There is a growing awareness — exemplified in articles, essays, conference splinter-sessions, and online discussions — that publish or perish is a problem.
The solution to the problem is simple but not easy. Universities should make their hiring decisions public and transparent, allowing applicants to see how they will be ranked and sorted before they apply. More departments should endorse the San Francisco Declaration. Universities should award dramatically fewer Ph.D.s every year, so there’s less competition for the scarce open faculty positions, and so hiring committees needn’t rely so much on simple metrics to filter candidates. Community organizations, from professional societies to graduate student unions, need to pressure universities to broaden their definition of scientific success. But ultimately, publish or perish will only perish when we, the community of scientists, collectively change our minds and decide that we can, should, and will do better.
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