Publish or Perish?

The academic world has been plagued with this dilemma for quite some time now. Wikipedia describes it beautifully as the “pressure in academia to rapidly and continuously publish academic work to sustain or further one’s career.” Nowadays, it has become necessary to publish as frequently as possible in order to demonstrate one’s academic talent. But is that the sole goal of doing research? Shouldn’t focus be given more to quality than to quantity? These are some of the fundamental questions that the present world of academia needs to find answers to.

This mad race to publish more and more had its origins in the late 1990s. Before that, scholars would do research and publish only when the final objective had been attained. In the 80s, graduate students would publish papers only after their dissertation was over and/or when a considerable breakthrough had been made. Focus, at that time, was more on the content of the publication rather than the time it had taken to publish. But as industry and money became more involved with research, scholars started publishing their results in the midst of their research. This resulted in the first paper becoming the precursor to the second one, the second one for the third one and so on and so forth. Instead of one good paper encompassing the complete work, a plethora of papers emerged describing parts of the work done. Instead of doing “radical” improvement focus was shifted to doing “iota” improvement.

The justification that university administrators give for stressing more on publications is based on the notion that it will act as an impetus for scholars to do cutting-edge research early on in their career. However, the flip-side of this argument is that scholars in their efforts to publish more and more give less and less time to develop good research ideas. Moreover, in their efforts to publish, scholars are often forced to forsake part/whole of their teaching responsibilities resulting in a break in the knowledge transfer process which is so important in universities. The fact that getting “tenure” depends upon the number of publications does not help either.

So the question is what can be done to avoid falling in this trap. How can we do quality research and still publish at a decent rate to maintain our academic prowess? Well, an innovative approach that IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) has come up with to address this issue, is to split publications into two parts – conferences and journals. Conferences are more in number and easier to publish; Journals are much less in number and therefore, more difficult to get published in. However, getting a journal publication is considered much more creditable than having a conference paper. Thus, those scholars who want to publish more can do so in the form of conferences whereas those who want to do high-quality research have the option of getting their work accepted in a journal. This creates a win-win situation where both the individual, in particular, as well as the academic world, at large, is benefited. I, personally, feel that this is a great idea and that more and more disciplines should follow this tactic to ease the load on their respective scholars.

2 thoughts on “Publish or Perish?

  1. Just something to consider… I have some close friends who are assistant professors both at Virginia Tech and at Radford, and I’ve been able to talk to them about how their tenure track career progression has been going. One assistant professor at Tech told me that when he first started he found that it took a very long time to get published in top-tier journals, and that his papers were readily published by other journals who didn’t ask as much of him. He changed his behavior to submit to the lower-tier journals to keep his publication levels up, but then he had a review meeting about halfway to his tenure review. He was provided a list of the top ten journals in his field by his review committee, and effectively he was told that any publications he had which were not in those journals would not be counted towards obtaining tenure.

    I don’t believe that the idea of having conferences and journals as tiered publication locations is a new one, but it does help to meet the needs of some in academia, particularly graduate students. I’d caution you however on the idea that “publish or perish” can be overcome through conferences, because it’s been my anecdotal experience that this won’t get us to where we wish to go.

    I feel strongly about the need to have quality instruction in the STEM fields, both at the undergraduate and graduate levels, but if we want to know whether our departments value quality instruction all we have to do is attend our classes and reflect on whether the person presiding is an educator, a researcher, or both.

    • Hi John,
      Its an excellent comment that you made. My real motivation behind writing this blog was to start a discussion on this topic and (if possible) to come up with a new approach to handle this issue. I feel that the distinction made between journal and conference is one way of going about this problem , but I agree that it is not the only way!
      A senior from my college (back in India) also had to go through a similar experience while trying to join academia and get tenure in the US. It appears that particularly in the STEM fields, this pressure to publish to exceptionally high. The effect of this was that although he was confident about his teaching abilities, he felt that teaching more courses was taking a toll on his research career (tenure track). Once over drinks he had told me that he just wanted to get through his classes so that he could go back to doing the research he was doing. In that sense, if the professor is not enthusiastic about the course he’s teaching, how can it be reflected on the students?
      In this learner-centered pedagogy that we are going for, it is necessary for the teacher to take active interest in the students. The sad part is that my senior is not the only one to have such feelings. I have a professor here at VT under whom I took two back-to-back “online” courses and ended up getting As in both of them (only one other student got both As). Then, when in the summer I got the opportunity to meet that professor in person when he came to Blacksburg, guess what was the first thing he said to me …. “Have you taken any of my courses?” …. At that moment I felt very bad because I realized that I was no more than a number to him, but over the next two semesters, I kept on interacting with him (and his students) and I came to know that it was the pressure of publishing that was getting to him. As a matter of fact, in the very next semester, he did not teach a single course, so that he could go back to do “quality” research – publish papers, write proposals, get grants …
      I do feel that attending classes is a nice way to get to know the “quality” of the instruction provided, but something needs to be done to ensure that the hands of the instructors are not-tied-behind-their-backs (so to speak), when it comes to teaching/researching. I believe that a good researcher has the potential to be a good instructor and vice-versa and so both should be given the freedom to explore other niches.

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