Cultural Awareness

Publish, Perish, and Cookie-Cutter Research: The Catch-22

The mantra ‘publish or perish’ originally coined by Archibald Coolidge in 1932, though dreaded, is now a reality. Contemporary academic life has become largely a negotiation with the ‘regime of publication’, resulting in another maxim: ‘publish and flourish’. It seems then that to remain a competitive academic means an upgraded understanding of the game: to make it through the maze of high impact factors, large citation numbers, an increasing h-index, and all without falling into the trap of cookie-cutter research. To some, the pressure to publish is necessary to motivate academics early in their careers to focus on research advancement. To others, it is an unhealthy practice that has adverse implications for ethics in science. I tend to agree with the latter school of thought because I think that the longer the culture of ‘publish or perish’ persists, the greater the risk to research integrity.

Often, the game metaphor is used to describe the ‘publish or perish’ world of academics. In this publishing game, I daresay that as the players begin to suffer and the cracks begin to appear, we are bound to wake up to the realization that ‘publish or perish’ is no sport. First, the over-emphasis on publishing and evaluating academics based on journal publications can provide the impetus for cookie-cutter research. With increasing pressure on academics and a relentless focus on publications as a performance indicator, scholars are likely to scramble to publish whatever they can manage – no matter how banal – instead of spending several years to develop a significant research agenda that will benefit the society.

In the world of ‘publish or perish’, time, speed, and quantity are of essence, and this may compel academics to skew their research priorities. For instance, it is common knowledge that to reduce the risk of rejection, many researchers tailor their papers, including their analyses and results, to suit the expectations of their (prestigious) target journal. To net a large number of publications in the publishing game, one has to be strategic and tactical; so if a researcher reckons that certain (new) findings may face resistance from editors/reviewers, s/he may report those (e.g. established findings with a slight twist) that s/he feels are likely to be endorsed by reviewers/editors. Having the potential to discourage the dissemination of useful discovery and original research findings, the system of ‘publish or perish’ with its focus on numbers, metrics, rubrics, statistics, etc., can decrease the value of scholarship rather than promote good science. That is, it is likely to make academics more concerned about addressing issues in the journal world instead of tackling issues in the real world, which is what good science is about.

The metaphorical use of ‘perish’ in ‘publish or perish’, beyond its stylistic rhetorical effect, can mean a number of things. For doctoral students, it may mean you are not likely to get a job in academia if you graduate without publishing. For early career researchers, it may mean a denial of tenure, and for established academics, it may mean loss of grants/funding or even the termination of appointment. All this increases the desire to publish at all cost, even if it means compromising the science and ethics of the ‘trade’. The relentless pressure to publish can encourage unethical research practices such as publication bias (i.e. reporting only positive results), salami slicing (i.e. unnecessarily slicing up project results to generate multiple articles), duplicate publication, multiplication of authorship, fabrication or falsification of research results, (self-)plagiarism, and ghost authors, among others.

These dubious practices corrupt the scientific literature and allow flawed research to enter the academy. Admittedly, these dubious practices can be nipped in the bud by enforcing stern penalties However, if the current trend of ‘publish or perish’ continues to drive research agenda, these practices are likely to persist. In the race to ‘produce’ several publications for promotion, tenure, grants, etc., academics may be forced to ‘create’ publishable (not necessarily quality) research and fraudulent work is likely to become widespread, which leads us to the issue of predatory journals. The emergence of predatory journals can be linked to the ‘publish or perish’ concept as the over-emphasis on publication record as the benchmark for reputation, credibility, and impact is arguably what has fuelled the rise of such journals. The reality, however, is that number of publications, citations, h-index, etc. does not necessarily correlate with (social) impact. Even though the culture of ‘publish or perish’ is currently dominant in academia, I hope it is not here to stay. Therefore, it is high time that the powers that be took the bull by the horn and recognized that ‘the publish or perish’ system does more harm than good.

About the author

Dr Mark Nartey

Dr Mark Nartey is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of English, The Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU) and a member of the Research Centre for Professional Communication in English, PolyU.

Dr Mark Nartey is an interdisciplinary scholar who specializes in corpus-assisted discourse studies and in the theory and application of critical discourse analysis in political, media and other public discourses. He is interested in the interplay of discourse, ideology and mythology, and explores those from a critical discourse analytical perspective.