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The Importance of Publication in an Academic Career

 The Importance of Publication in an Academic Career

“Publish or perish.” That’s the mantra that academics have drilled into their heads from the moment they start their quest for an academic career. In today’s academic world, publishing in an academic journal isn’t just an important way to improve one’s reputation or make a dent in the intellectual community. Instead, it’s a life-or-death factor in determining each step on the career ladder. Let’s take a look at some of the ways that the modern university system has turned academic articles into the most important measurement of a professor’s worth.

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The phrase “publish or perish” was coined in 1932 to describe the pressure that academics faced to place research articles in scholarly journals. But now, almost nine decades later, publication is the measurement by which universities judge the value of scholars for hiring and promotion. The reason for this is a series of perverse incentives tied to publicity. 

Originally, academic articles were designed to share research with other scholars in order to further the intellectual development of academic fields. However, over time, academic articles came to be seen less as a way to share information than as a way to promote one’s own research skills and ability to generate groundbreaking new information. 

Universities, in turn, saw journal articles as a way to call attention to the quality of the research work done in their institutions, and a way to gain mainstream media attention, and thus to attract new sources of fundraising and revenue. There are a lot of websites which offer custom academic writing services for students. Such online writing companies hire professional freelance writers to prepare essays and research projects for money.

This, in turn, has led administrators to see scholarly publications as a way to determine which professors offer the school a good return on investment. According to a study released in 2010, a growing number of universities evaluate potential new hires based entirely on the length of their publication list, without consideration of other factors, such as teaching experience and quality.

However, because many administrators have no background in the subjects taught by the professors they are evaluating, this has created a perverse incentive to simply publish anything, no matter the quality, in order to rack up publication credits to pad a C.V. To that end, the number of scholarly journals has exploded in recent decades. Currently, there are now more than 28,000 scholarly peer-reviewed journals, publishing an astonishing 2.5 million articles each year.  The number of published articles has grown at a steady rate of 4-5% per year, according to the International Association of Scientific, Technical and Medical Publishers. 

Obviously, that volume cannot represent unalloyed quality. The more papers that are published each year, the more papers that will have quality problems.

The glut of publishing is driven by the university system, in which the number of scholarly publications determines a professor’s fitness to advance through the ranks and to gain tenure. Recently, impact scores—referring to the quality of the journal in which a paper is published, how many other scholars cite a paper, or how many news articles refer to it—have come into vogue as a way to distinguish between an academic with high quality work and one who churns our hack work for credits, but the overwhelming pressure remains to produce volume over quality. This has led to a bizarre phenomenon known unofficially as “salami slicing,” where professors will divide their research into the smallest units possible so that they can wring extra articles out of a topic that previously would have been covered in a single paper. This makes it harder for future researchers to gather the applicable information, but it means that the author ends up with extra papers on his or her C.V.

What makes the explosion of articles as a metric of success so disturbing is that most universities do not pay professors to write them, nor do journals, which typically seize the writer’s copyright and then profit from the articles themselves. Instead, professors are asked to squeeze article writing into their free time outside of their professional teaching and research obligations, or else to fit a growing number of articles into limited annual research periods.

The resulting distortion of priorities has unintended consequences: Universities that prioritize publications end up with professors who must place writing articles—their unpaid labor—above their official job of teaching undergraduate and graduate students and conducting research. Consequently, both purposes of the modern university—teaching and research—suffer as professors scramble to prioritize whichever and whatever subjects can generate the most articles and the most media attention, rather than the research that will result in the greatest impact on the world. 

While most academics would prefer to do important work over voluminous work, the consequences of not publishing are daunting: An academic who does not publish regularly will not receive tenure, and will quickly find that his or her position has been replaced by someone with a longer C.V. Academic publishing is less about sharing knowledge than an arms race to pad a C.V. for the benefit of administrators who will never read the articles listed on it.

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