Publish or perish: did we get lost in the pursuit of academic success?

If you are working towards your PhD or are a postdoc, you must have heard the phrase “publish or perish”.

Did you know that it was first used the late 1920s by Clarence Marsh Case (1928)? It was later defined by Professor Logan Wilson in his book The Academic Man: A Study in the Sociology of a Profession:

The prevailing pragmatism forced upon the academic group is that one must write something and get it into print. Situational imperatives dictate a ‘publish or perish’ credo within the ranks” – Professor Logan Wilson.

But you must be wondering what this actually means for your research. I heard this phrase from my colleague at the very beginning of my research project and was not sure what it meant.

Is success in an academic career really dictated on what and how much you publish? Let me share my view.

Publish or perish is usually seen as a key phrase during our PhDs that may either motivate or discourage us from pursuing academic career.
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Definition of publish or perish in the academic context

I remember like it was yesterday that I looked it up in the Oxford Dictionary. I learnt that the aphorism “publish or perish” refers to the pressure that is put on researchers and academics by their institutions to publish their work in order to be seen as successful and progress through their academic careers.

I believe that was the time I decided to do my PhD thesis by publication, as I realised that to succeed in academia, I need to publish my work (although I was not pushed to do so just to be clear!).

Did this mean working against the clock to publish as much as possible? Yes… but it was my decision and ambition at that time that was driving this.

Did this mean that I missed out on other important activities, such as networking or making new friends? Yes… but at that time this seemed to be a good approach.

Did this mean that I got really anxious about and did not see the point in my work? Yes… but I brought this on myself.

Does this mean I would go the same path again? Definitely no!

Issues with publish or perish culture

My discussions with academics and researchers at other universities worldwide indicated that the “publish or perish” aphorism is annoyingly believed to be an unspoken truth of the academic life. Yet, remember that “publish or perish” is not necessarily a part of the academic culture at all universities or research organisations. For example, I have not experienced it the university I am currently associated with.

If you have experienced “publish or perish” pressure, I would like to hear from you. Remember that publishing your work is important – after all your track record is very likely to be considered when you apply for research and academic positions, or later when you apply for research grants.

But did you know that some of the articles do not get cited at all? There are, of course, disciplines where you are almost certain that you will be cited.

Some papers may not be cited even 5 years after of publication!

For example, in disciplines related to chemical engineering, chemistry, neuroscience or biology were uncited only 3-7% of articles published in 2012 were uncited after 5 years according to research undertaken by THE.

However, the part of uncited work in areas like automotive, aerospace and ocean engineering reached more than 40%. This percentage can get even higher for disciplines like literature and literary theory (>70% uncited), visual arts and performing arts (70%) or history (>50%).

With such a high fraction of uncited work, one may wonder whether this work has been read at all and whether it will influence the particular field of study.

I believe that the culture of “publish or perish” has opened a Pandora’s box of predatory journals, low-quality articles, and incremental research just to meet the “quantity” targets for publications.

Support a culture of “publish quality work and succeed!”

If you are here, this means that you want to do things differently and you support a change of the research culture.

As a motivated academic, I aim to lead the change in academia and, potentially, create a new culture – a culture of “publish quality work and succeed!”.

So how to achieve academic success? First of all, I want you to be brave to act as the catalyst for a change. It means that if you are going to change something, you need to start to be living proof of that change so that others can follow. That is one of the reasons Magda and I created Motivated Academic!

Having spent a couple of successful years in the academic environment, I have learnt that to be successful, you need to learn to prioritise the work that really matters.

Blueprint for successful academic career

Below I share some of the objectives I set out for my career that enable me to prioritise my work. I trust these will help you to bring your research or academic career to the next level.

Promise me you will:

  1. produce only high-quality publications that address the specific knowledge gap and include a super-comprehensive analysis of your data or topic – three to four high-quality articles out of your PhD in respectable journals will carry more weight than 10 low-quality pieces of work. Although there will be lots of tempting opportunities to publish, I want you to remember that QUALITY always goes before quantity;
  2. actively promote your research via various channels to make sure it gets read by relevant audiences that can make use of it. It will not only increase the impact of your research but may lead to an increase in citations. Together with Magda, we have released a free ebook with 25 ideas to share your research;
  3. optimise the title and the abstract of your publications to ensure these stand out from the other articles published in your research area. Remember, you usually have only a couple of seconds to capture someone’s attention with your title – make sure it is descriptive yet concise.
  4. focus on developing a network of academic and industrial contacts by attending conferences and networking events that will support you in building your research programme;
  5. be selective regarding the grant applications you bid for to ensure that each application you submit is of the best possible quality. This at the beginning will mean winning some small research projects that will demonstrate your ability to work as an independent academic and focus on more substantial collaborative bids at the later stage of your career;
  6. be open to developing yourself as a future leader in your research area and never stop innovating in your current role. It means you should be bold to share your ideas, be open to collaborating with others in your department, and be open to taking additional responsibilities that are not always aligned with your expertise.

A final word…

Because the “publish or perish” culture, we may have lost the sight of the essence of science – to advance our understanding of the phenomena governing the world so that we can make it a better place to live.

However, to achieve the academic success you should not produce as many publications as possible. Remember that quality always goes before quantity.

To achieve success in an academic career, I want you to take a more holistic view of being a researcher or an academic. It means you will engage with key stakeholders and “publish quality work and succeed!”

Have you experienced the “publish or perish” pressure? How did you deal with it?

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Academic Coach at Motivated Academic, senior lecturer at Cranfield University, UK.

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