“Publish or perish”: fact or fiction? | Lex Academic Blog

The pressure to publish, especially during the early stages of an academic career, can be extremely intense. Indeed, the perception that scholarly success depends on publishing frequently, especially in journals with a suitably high impact factor, is pervasive across the disciplines. That this remains the case, despite the fact that there is an increasing body of evidence to suggest that ‘publishing’ can still lead to ‘perishing’, is worthy of investigation.

Publishing one’s research is, of course, a worthwhile endeavour, one that unquestionably bears upon one’s chances of winning a tenured position. Still, many scholars with extensive publication records have, whether through choice or circumstance, left the academy. As pointed out in a plethora of other articles on this subject, when doctoral researchers far outstrip the number of postdoctoral positions—and when there are far fewer stable academic jobs available than there are postdoctoral researchers—it is no wonder that publication is no guarantee of success. Publishing, in other words, is not sufficient, in and of itself, to get that fabled promotion; you also need luck, good timing, substantial teaching experience, an extensive network of contacts, and, ideally, prior membership of a rich, elite and research-intensive institution that offers scholarships to a chosen few.

The ‘publish or perish’ mantra is also deeply lacking in its privileging of quantity over quality, and in its inherent bias towards those who, whilst not necessarily possessing any greater talent than their time-poor peers, can dedicate more of their working lives to research. This is true of the vast number of early career researchers who become trapped in intensive, and frequently exploitative, teaching-only positions. These posts do not give aspirant academics adequate time to complete the very research that might allow them to escape this particularly vicious circle. What is more, and as has been made uncomfortably clear by the COVID-19 pandemic, it is a system that favours those who do not have caring responsibilities, whilst shutting out those who do, which affects women disproportionately. This is to say nothing of the fact that a framework that uses English-language journals as the benchmark of quality can have the effect of excluding those for whom English is not a native language. It is also worth bearing in mind, moreover, that a scholar’s discipline can have a sizeable impact on how frequently they are able to publish, and on the impact factors of the journals that are available to them.

Ultimately, the focus on publishing-by-the-numbers forces academics to neglect teaching, to turn down opportunities that might advance their field (not to mention providing personal fulfilment), but which have no value according to the ‘publish or perish’ metric, and to privilege publishing whatever they can over pushing the boundaries of their research. It also breeds cynicism regarding the purpose of scholarly publishing and research. Finally, it perpetuates the myth that leaving academe is a form of death, and is far worse than putting up with years of precarious, abusive employment. For all those thinking of making the leap, this is manifestly not the case.