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Publish or Perish: How to Survive in Academia

Publish or perish. The ultimatum is well known to academics: publish original research, or risk damaging your reputation—or even losing a professorship.

The phrase publish or perish dates all the way back to 1942, when a sociologist named Logan Wilson used it in a book studying academia as a career. At the time, he described the "publish or perish" credo as a "prevailing pragmatism forced upon the academic group," and it still feels this way to many of today's academics and researchers. For those working within the publish-or-perish system, it can be a stressful lifestyle.

Not only must academics publish research to remain relevant, but doing so is a requirement—a key performance indicator—at many universities. Publishing rates can be used to determine an academic's value at an institution, and they can play a role in determining who will be granted tenure.

As you can imagine, the pressure to publish can be very high. Unfortunately, getting published is becoming more and more difficult, due in part to an increase in the number of academics worldwide.

As a result, the publish-or-perish system is often criticized by academics and researchers. In this article, we explore the advantages and disadvantages of this system, as well as the current state of academic publishing and how academics can navigate the world of "publish or perish."

Is the Publish-or-Perish System Helpful or Harmful?

There is much controversy surrounding the publish-or-perish system. While many people criticize the system, others acknowledge its merits. As with most things, there are both advantages and disadvantages to this system.


The Advantages

Confirms accuracy: Academic journals make a point of ensuring that all submitted research is rigorously reviewed by experts in the field. This process is time consuming but ensures that false information is not distributed. The publish-or-perish system, then, helps promote accuracy in academia by requiring researchers to submit to high-quality, peer-reviewed journals.

Assures accountability: The publish-or-perish system holds academics accountable to the public, ensuring that academics meet their goals and do research that will contribute to their fields of study. Thus, many view publishing as a moral requirement. Since the public funds public universities, the research they produce should be accessible to the public. (This argument is also in favor of open-access publishing, which is another hot topic in the world of academia.)

Ensures honesty: Academics who publish know that their processes and their research will be evaluated by other industry professionals and journal editors. This knowledge prevents them from cutting corners and encourages them to strive for accuracy above all else.

Allows communication: Publishing research is an effective way to share findings with others in the field. Other industry experts can use previous findings to further their own research.

Establishes reputation: Building a good reputation is important as a professional in any industry. Some argue that publishing is an opportunity for academics to prove themselves as active members and authorities in their field. Publishing enforces an academic's reputation as a scholar and opens doors for them to collaborate with other experts. These reputational benefits can also help academics obtain promotions, grants, scholarships, etc.


The Disadvantages

Inhibits idea development: One of the most common arguments against the publish-or-perish mindset is that it pressures academics into publishing too frequently, not allowing researchers to give their ideas a sufficient amount of time to develop.

Increases pressure: Academics are expected to publish often, as publishing rates are often used as a key performance indicator to measure academic success in institutions. Not only do academics need to publish often to stay relevant, but they also need to publish often to validate their research to their bosses.

Revokes control: Academics have little control over the publishing process. Publishers control when pieces are read, reviewed, and published. Despite this lack of control, publishing has a direct impact on an academic's chances at promotions, grants, scholarships, and funding.

Results in discrimination: Those who critique the publish-or-perish system often point out the flaws in how it operates. For example, women are less likely to be published than their male peers, and racial minorities also face discrimination in the world of academia and academic publishing.

Promotes a for-profit business model: Another issue that concerns academics is the for-profit mentality of many journals. Research should be published because it will further a particular field, not simply because it is perceived to be profitable.

There is no denying that getting published feels great and can further an academic's career, but there is also no denying that the publish-or-perish system places too much pressure on academics and institutions.


The Numbers

Like any good researcher will tell you, numbers don't lie. Thankfully, there are plenty of statistics on the publish-or-perish system and how it relates to academic publishing. Below are just a few facts and figures to help give some perspective on the state of academic publishing.

  • There were 55,006 science and engineering doctorate recipients from US universities in 2015, while there were only 16,340 recipients in 1965. That's an increase of 38,666 academics!
  • In 2015, about 54% of doctorate recipients were male, while 46% were female.
  • With so many academics, competition is high, especially when they are submitting publications to the same journals. Many top journals have a rejection rate that is higher than 90%.
  • Still, in 2013, 2,199,704 science and engineering articles were published worldwide.
  • According to PubMed, its takes an average of 124 days for a submission to reach publication.
  • Finally, expenditures by US colleges and universities on research and development in all fields totaled $67.3 billion in 2014.


Fun fact: Barack Obama is the only US president to have published an academic paper in a top academic journal.


Navigating Publish or Perish

Whether you like it or not, publish or perish is a reality for today's academics. How can you compete in such a saturated, and sometimes ruthless, system? Knowing what you're up against is half the battle, but it's easy to become discouraged when faced with the challenge of thriving in the publish-or-perish system. Here are some things to remember to help ensure your success:

  1. Academic journals have their pick of research from highly qualified researchers. Whether you submit to these journals or go the self-publishing route, ensure your research process is sound and your final product is clear and accurate. This means you must edit, edit, edit! Get a professional academic editor to review your work before you submit it. You definitely do not want grammar or spelling errors to undermine or distract from your research.
  2. Follow the instructions given by your target publication to the letter. With such stiff competition, you can't afford to be passed over for neglecting to follow a journal's submission guidelines or style guide.
  3. Network when possible. Give compliments when they are authentic, reach out to influencers in your industry, and project a professional and reliable persona on social media.
  4. If you get rejected, don't give up. Submit to other relevant journals, take editors' and reviewers' advice when it is given, and be willing to revise or go back to the drawing board. The process can be arduous, but perseverance pays off.

The publish-or-perish system is unlikely to change anytime soon. Although a record number of academics are submitting work to a limited amount of publications, you can use the information from this article to exercise every avenue and increase your chances of being published.



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