Publish or Perish: Perceived Benefits versus unintended Consequences

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Imad Moosa talks about the problems surrounding the publish or perish culture.

“Publish or perish” (POP) is a phrase that describes the pressure put on academics to publish in scholarly journals rapidly and continually as a condition for employment (finding a job), promotion, and even maintaining one’s job. The POP culture has led to a relentless quest for publications—the sole objective being CV building rather than the advancement of human knowledge.

One perceived benefit of the POP model is that some pressure to produce research is necessary to motivate academics early in their careers to focus on research advancement and learn to balance research activity with other responsibilities. Another perceived advantage is that it helps to identify and reward scientists based on merit and not on favouritism and nepotism. One can only wonder why publishing is given more importance than other academic duties and why publications represent the only measure of output or performance. These perceived benefits are illusory, as academics are forced to publish anything rather than caring about the advancement of human knowledge, which cannot materialise under pressure. The POP culture does not teach academics how to balance research with other responsibilities—rather it encourages them to ignore other responsibilities (including teaching) and concentrate on research that is more often than never of interest to the author only.

In the face of these perceived benefits, the adverse consequences have been enormous. The POP culture has resulted in the proliferation of published research at a rate that is disproportional to the advancement of human knowledge. Things have changed from publishing when there was something important to publish to the status quo of publishing because we have to, irrespective of whether or not what we want to publish is worthy of publishing. As a result, we can readily witness a destructive race to the bottom because the quality of published research has been deteriorating. Thank God that Albert Einstein did not live under the POP culture—otherwise, we probably would not have heard of the theory of relativity.

Under POP, academics scramble to publish whatever they can get in print rather than working on the development of serious ideas that may take years to produce a publication. This is so much the case because it has been found that the peer review process creates bias against new and innovative ideas. When POP is the law of the land, the development of a novel idea is the opportunity cost of publishing anything, and publishing anything is important for the survival of the authors and for avoiding the possibility of perishing. Albert Einstein published his most influential work without peer review and he always viewed the peer review process with contempt.

Most published research these days has nothing to do with reality. Practical applications become irrelevant as academics haunted by POP write for themselves, not for the general public or policy makers. Publications have become the end as opposed to the means to an end. The findings of published research may be false or unreliable. Under POP, the soundness and reliability of results matter less than the ultimate objective of getting a paper published. Given the loopholes in the peer review process, papers with faulty results can and do get published. The rush to produce publishable results may compromise the soundness and reliability of the results.

POP has become a global phenomenon. For academics from all over the world, English-language journals are like McDonalds, Starbucks and Hollywood movies. At one time, the best papers in mathematics were published in Russian-language journals and the best papers in physics were published in German-language journals. These days “international” journals are only English-language journals. Developing countries could allocate more funds to the alleviation of poverty if they did not have to pay exorbitant submission fees and subscription charges for the privilege of flicking through English-language journals. The adverse effect on studies of national benefit is enormous.

Under the POP culture, publications mean journal articles, and there is no place for books, whether they are textbooks or research monographs. As an economist, I have a feeling of relief that great economists such as Adam Smith, J.M. Keynes, David Ricardo and Alfred Marshall did not live under POP, otherwise we would not have seen The Wealth of Nations, The General Theory, Principles of Political Economy and Taxation, and Principles of Economics. These books and others have contributed so much to the development of economics as a discipline. The greatest achievement in mathematics in recent years, the solution of the 100-year old Poincare Conjecture by a genius called Grigori Perelman, was not presented in a journal article—it was posted on the Web without peer review.

What matters in a POP environment is the publication of research findings. An academic could contribute significantly to a noble cause that serves the community, but this does not matter. The marketability of academics depends on one section of their CVs, the list of publications. To have 200 papers on the CV is valued more than saving 200 lives.

POP has led to excess demand for journal space as academics strive to publish and not perish. As a result, journal subscription costs and submission fees (also various forms of administrative fees) have skyrocketed. Both predatory and non-predatory journals indulge in the predatory activity of extracting as much money as possible from academics submitting articles for publication and from the libraries of their institutions. For academics residing in developing countries, this problem is even more acute as the submission fee may be three times the average monthly salary of the person submitting a paper, and that is only to get a swift rejection.

When all academics are forced to publish anything, there are always publishers willing to provide journal space for the right fee. A predatory journal provides a looked-for service to authors: a rapid (and positive) decision that is typically based on a cursory or non-existent review of the paper. The predatory journal industry is a big scam, and academics know it. However, pressure to publish may force even good publishers to go down that slippery slope. Another phenomenon associated with POP is the rise of predatory conference organisers. This industry thrives on the perception of young academics in particular that participating in a conference provides “networking opportunities” that lead to publications.

The POP culture has made journal editors some sort of celebrities, members of some elitist group. Elitism of another sort involves those who publish versus those who do not publish and those who publish well versus those who do not publish well. This is similar to the difference between the haves and have-nots, or between first-class, second-class and third-class citizens of academia.

The pressure imposed on academics to publish (or else) may, can and does lead to research misconduct or at least questionable ethics. Misconduct may involve, amongst other malpractices, falsification, fabrication, plagiarism and duplicate publications that amount to self-plagiarism. Paper retraction has become a very common phenomenon (a 10-fold increase in the percentage of papers retracted because of fraud since 1975).

Last, but not least, POP has been found to be detrimental to the health and well-being of those put under pressure to publish or perish, and a threat to their job security and livelihood. Stress is bound to arise as a result of being under pressure to publish while exposed to a constant threat of perishing one way or another. The environment created by POP is punitive, resulting in a negative influence on life balance. Women are likely to suffer more than men under a POP environment, given the busy life of women attempting to balance home and career.

This is an impressive list of adverse consequences of a practice that was meant to encourage high quality research. These consequences have been known for some time, yet POP practices persist. I would always say that bad things persist because there are some beneficiaries, which means that there must be some beneficiaries of POP. Unless the beneficiaries lose influence, the POP culture will persist and there will be no end to the suffering of those who have chosen to be in academia as educators and researchers.

Dr. Imad Moosa is Professor of Finance at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology. He is the author of Publish or Perish: Perceived Benefits versus Unintended Consequences and Econometrics as a Con Art: Exposing the Limitations and Abuses of Econometrics.

Moosa PublishPublish or Perish is available now.

Read Chapter 1 free on Elgaronline.

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2 Comments on “Publish or Perish: Perceived Benefits versus unintended Consequences”

  1. Greg Bailey Says:

    Very well summarised, Imad. The creation of new “private” journals and conferences is all part of the privatisation of education and the imposition of competition (and ratings) as the governing ethos driving higher education. Because numbers and citations are numerical they are therefore comparable, irrespective of the intellectual content.

    Yes, published research must ultimately be for the advancement of knowledge, not for meeting externally imposed research numbers, nor as criteria for attracting research grants.

    Most European journals in Indian Studies have the editor as referee and do not use the blind method. Their articles are universally high and they still publish in French, German and English, thankfully.


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