Why “Publish or Perish” is bad advice

Publish or perish sounds snappy and rings true, which is why we really need to ask ourselves whether it actually is. It is a phrase used by journalists and commentators to describe the current state of academia, and also passed on as advice from senior academics to their younger colleagues, and from junior academics to their peers. The argument that I will develop in this post is that it is not very good at either. Publish or perish is not in any way an accurate description of academia, nor is it sound advice for academics.

In fact, publish or perish is a meme that keeps many researchers stuck in what is inherently an abusive relationship with a system that gives them an illusion of agency that is just good enough to make them hang on.

Publish

Let me get the obvious one out of the way first: publish or perish has nothing to say about publication quality and instead seems to emphasize on quantity. After all, a high-quality publication takes time, sometimes years, and you are supposed to be publishing all the time. In many institutions there are formal or less formal publication targets and full time academic staff are expected to produce around 2 to 3 articles a year. This sounds like not much, ultimately, but it generally boils down to writing one high-level and several lower-level papers, or artificially splitting data sets from a single project into several subsets that can be published in separate papers. In many fields this has also led to a proliferation of second- and third-tier journals and an abundance of frankly rather mediocre articles. It also rewards academics for publishing basically anything, and a publication strategy that is based on writing few but very good publications almost looks like an act of resistance.

The way in which academic CVs are usually evaluated frankly does not help. Any prospective employer or funding body will argue that they will above all look at the quality of publications, not their quantity. But let’s be honest, they will not actually read your papers to see whether they are of good quality, they will use the impact factor of the journals you published in as a proxy for quality and that is deeply problematic. Not because the first-tier journals don’t publish quality – most of the time they do – but given the abundance of papers they receive (some journals reject over 95% of submissions), some excellent papers necessarily end up in the rejection pile, simply because they don’t fit with the stated aims of the journal or the preferences and interests of its editors. In addition, there are ways to get into high-level journals that might otherwise reject your paper, for example by applying for a Special Issue that is guest edited and comes with a pre-selected set of papers on a given theme. These papers will be published in the same journal, many authors might not mention “Special Issue” on their CV, and unless someone really takes the time to dig deeper, the impact factor of the journal is now on that author’s CV.

In addition, there are countless other variables that publish or perish fails to account for: different disciplines have different sizes, impact factors vary widely from field to field, editors and reviewers are only human and their decisions not always entirely fair or objective, and let me not get started on the politics of co-authorship and the order of authors on a paper and what that paper will then be “worth” on each of their CVs.

This is not to say that publishing is not good advice. I am infinitely grateful to those who encouraged me to just start publishing, even when I did not feel I had a legitimate voice within the discipline. Waiting until you feel that you have something important to say is not good advice – no discipline will accept a fundamental theoretical insight from someone who is completely unknown among her peers because she has never published a line of text before.

The problem with “publish or perish” is that it simplifies things to a fake binary distinction and glosses over the complexities that inhabit each of these three words. Speaking of binary systems…

Or

Computers rely on different types of basic logic gates to establish relationships between two inputs, A and B. We can view these inputs as different conditions that can each either be met (1 – true ) or not met (0 – false), and that can furthermore interact in several different ways. These interactions are generally illustrated by a matrix as follows:

A B
true true
true false
false true
false false

Each gate “opens”, i.e. turns a 0 into a 1, when there is a specific relationship between A and B.

  1. AND gates: A and B, have to be simultaneously true
  2. NAND gates: either one or both of the inputs, have to be false for the gate to open – the NAND gate is the opposite of the AND gate
  3. OR gates: either one or both of the inputs are true, i.e. condition A or B is met or condition A and B are met
  4. XOR gates: this gate is a true “or” condition, i.e. it opens only when inputs A or B are true not when both are true or when both are false.

So what about publish or perish? The linking word parades as an “OR” but is actually an “XOR” gate, creating a binary opposition between two conditions that cannot simultaneously be true: you publish (A) or you perish (B). Several implications can be derived from this initial statement, and all of them are, to put it mildly, pretty much total bullshit:

If you don’t publish, you will perish.
If you publish, you will not perish.
If you did not perish, it is because you published.
If you perish, it is because you did not publish.

These statements arguably all sound much less snappy than “publish or perish”, which is exactly why it became a meme that is passed from person to person and effectively circumvents our critical reasoning. It sounds right and that’s about it. But the “if statements” above show publish or perish for what it is: a shortcut that establishes a direct correlation where none exists.

This is not to say that publishing is not a necessary requirement to attain legitimacy in the academic field. It very much is. There are people who have achieved tenure despite a poor publication record but they are the exception and not the rule, often owing their early tenure to largely arbitrary lucky circumstances, like good timing, a good network within their institution or discipline, and the retirement of a professor in their field shortly after they obtain their PhD. These are not things one should ever count on or plan for so publishing is still better than not publishing. For each of these success stories of early tenure, I have heard at least two stories of such early tenure being expected and then prevented by the arrival of a better qualified candidate. So while entitlement is never good advice, it is healthy to keep in mind that luck and randomness also play a role in all of this, especially when professorships are awarded “for life” and retirements end up skipping several generations of academics altogether (who were academically too young when a post became vacant and are biologically too old when it becomes vacant again). This means that many people will simply not be eligible to apply for certain posts because of bad timing.

But even if publishing is necessary, it is not a sufficient requirement to get promoted, tenured or even just extended and this is one aspect we tend to regularly forget or conveniently deny. Many sharp minds have left academia despite a solid publication record, simply because the number of academics far outstrips the number of available posts, scholarships and stipends. That is the reality of things. The statistics are murky and hard to come by, but it is safe to say that only a minority of those currently trying to obtain their PhD will remain in academia upon graduating, and only a minority of those currently employed as post-doctoral researchers will get long-term contracts or tenure. In the US there are now as many Ph.D.s working in the private sector as in academia, and that number includes all generations of academics and non-academics currently in employment, which means that the proportion for younger generations is likely much higher.

Many of those have left academia by choice, in pursuit of higher salaries, better working conditions and more stability. Others have left academia with a heavy heart, simply because they have reached the conclusion that the field has no place for them. Some of them probably did not have a good publication record. But I would bet that, on average, they probably had about as many publications as their peers when they left academia. They perished even though they published.

There really is no logic gate linking publishing to perishing. You can publish and perish, not publish and not perish, publish and not perish, and not publish and perish. Not perishing in academia is as much about competence as it is about luck, networking and randomness. Ask those who spent the year 2019 putting together funding applications about Corona viruses or pandemics, thinking that they would once again get rejection after rejection because their research was not considered topical enough…

It is not flattering to think about our professional successes as owed in large part to randomness and we therefore don’t. We try to tell ourselves tales of competence and merit. But the truth is, for every person who holds a PhD, there exist thousands of other people with equally (or more) brilliant minds who never got a chance to engage in higher education. Our social positioning is the result of a complex web of factors and we only have a limited amount of control over a limited number of them.

It is easy to think of a system that puts you on top as a meritocracy. That does not make it true.

Perish

While some ‘doctors’ are working in the private sector, others have decided to continue to hang on to highly precarious academic ‘posts’ that are often nothing more than exploitative makeshift arrangements where you are paid to teach and ‘allowed’ to use the institution’s name as an affiliation for the research you publish in your own time and without pay. They are still in the running to get tenure. They have not “perished”.

The third word in our little meme is by far the most toxic. It encourages academics to remain in a system that can be exploitative and abusive by depicting the alternative as inherently worse. It comes from the same brand of reasoning that encourages women to stay in abusive relationships, and justifies gender-based violence as inevitable. Yes, really. Hyperbolic, much? Probably a bit. On a meta-level. Just to drive home the point that leaving academia and dying are two very different things. Leaving academia is an individual decision, or sometimes simply the result of circumstances beyond our control. It is not a form of “giving up”. You are not leaving academia because of an inability to fight hard enough to stay, you are leaving because you decided that you now want to fight a different battle altogether. And that is fine.

Many professional fields that apply rigorous entrance requirements – both academia and conference interpreting come to mind here – end up exerting a cult-like pull on their members. Leaving the field is viewed by its members almost as an act of treason. The parallels between conference interpreting and academia are quite staggering here. In both cases, people who leave the field are seen as intellectually lazy or not hard-working enough, in line with the myth of meritocracy that members tell themselves to allow the field to self-perpetuate with all its inequalities. And in both cases, the people who occupy entry-level positions in the field (recent graduates in interpreting, doctoral and post-doctoral researchers in academia) are the ones most actively questioning the rules of the game, making everyone else extremely uncomfortable in the process. Especially, I shall add, those who still want to believe in the ideal of a meritocracy and have been shielded from the limitations of their own agency-centric world view by a hefty dose of privilege.

The aura of meritocracy, together with a mismatch of hopeful candidates and available positions, do, after all, contribute to giving the field an aura of exclusivity, desirability, and importance, which all further enhance the symbolic capital of those occupying positions of power within it. Everyone else is expendable. Your struggle is not a bug, it is a feature.

Bottom line

If like me you enjoy research and writing: please continue publishing. Develop a publication strategy that suits your personality and your situation. But publish what you find relevant. Persevere to get your message out there, to be part of a discussion that you really care about. Enjoy the ride for its own sake.

However, do not publish merely to get promoted or tenured, to “not perish”. Because when that is the primary aim guiding your publication game, the time invested will not be time enjoyed but time stolen from yourself, your family and your friends. That time is not coming back.

The correlation between publishing and not perishing is spurious (and the internet has its very entertaining rabbit hole of those to go down on a rainy day) and the return on investment might therefore be disappointing. The only reward you might get for a publication is the process in itself and how it has contributed to your intellectual growth. It sounds cheesy and not at all snappy, but it is true and in itself an enormous privilege in today’s troubled times. Don’t mess it up by writing about stuff that you only marginally care about, just because you think it will get you somewhere professionally. Or do – I am not judging you, really. I am just trying to be mindful of what I spend my own time on.

Then again, don’t take advice from someone who has just spent a lot of time writing a blog post that has zero value on her academic CV.

Author: CarmenDelgado

I’m a trained translator (MA), Conference interpreter (MA), Interpreter trainer (MAS) and researcher (PhD, University of Geneva) with an interest in development anthropology, ethnography and technology.

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