Publish or Perish: Incentivizing Personal over Societal Gains

I challenge you to find a member of higher education who has not hear of the phrase “publish or perish”. Whether our immediate supervisors push this mantra or not, we all know if to be true. “Grant reviewers can’t read, but they can count” I have been told by a mentor, implying that the committees reviewing my status as a researcher may not take the time to review the quality of my work, but they sure will place judgement on the number of manuscripts I’ve published in peer-reviewed journals.

I think it’s just as universally recognized that publish or perish is not a sustainable mantra to live by, nor one that maximizes benefit for society over the individual, yet it is pushed in higher education just the same. While in theory, this concept may seem to spur great productivity, instead what often results are publications that are so obscure, context-specific, or just plain obvious, that they may not have been worth the time or effort required to get paper to publication. I’ve seen firsthand when scientists make the argument that, yes, it seems like everyone in the field is aware that z will occur when you add x and y, but no one has published it yet and so it’s ripe for the picking. However, is spreading this information to a field that already recognizes it to be true worth your time and resources to run the experiments and the publishers time and resources to review and print it? Maybe, if it’s a foundational concept. But if this is something that has already been assumed for decades, then maybe you are providing some level of comfort to other researchers, but for the most part, you have not enlightened society on the whole or provided a new platform from which new work can develop.

Of course, there certainly are topics that seem obscure and are hard to pinpoint a direct and immediate application for. In fact, some of my own work may fall into this category, and indeed, many advancements have been made with relatively old findings that technology was simply not ready to utilize yet. My concern is that the argument that “this will be useful to someone eventually” is a very easy façade to hide behind, and authors should sincerely consider how meaningful each “quick” publication is to society as a whole.

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