“Publish or perish” will not perish

“Publish or perish”, as a widely accepted academic evaluation system, should not be discarded just because of its potential drawbacks.

Go to the profile of Yide Zhang
Oct 10, 2019
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“Publish or perish” might be the closest to an “ideal” academic evaluation system for PhD students.

During the first year of my PhD program in Electrical Engineering at the University of Notre Dame, the main goal for me and my classmates was to finish the required course works and pass the qualifying exam at the end of the year. All first-year graduate students were given the chance to do rotations in different labs, which allowed us to work with potential advisors for a short period of time and decide which lab we would join eventually. Because of the frequent switch of research directions due to the rotations as well as the time-consuming course works, no one expected us to publish in the first year as a PhD student. I was fortunate to find the research topics I really liked during my first rotation in Prof. Scott Howard’s lab, so I made my decision to join his lab even before the rotation ended. Thus, I got more time to work on the same research topic throughout my first year, which led to my first journal publication several months after the first year of my PhD.

Note that in this blog, I use the word “publish” for first-author publications in Science Citation Index (SCI) journals and esteemed conferences only. While publishing my first journal article in the second year was a decent pace, at that moment, I had some friends in China who had already published more than one journal papers in their first year as a PhD student. I did not stop publishing after my first year. With my advisor’s guidance, I was able to extend my existing research topics and discover new research directions, which then resulted in more and more publications in the following years. So far, I have published a dozen of journal and conference papers. However, throughout my PhD studies, I could always find some of my friends in China who started their PhD the same year as I did publish more than I had.

Image from Pixabay

While writing, submitting, and revising the manuscripts for publication are hard and sometimes unpleasant processes, what drove me and my friends as PhD students in the United States and China, respectively, to publish? The answer is that we both knew and approved the “publish or perish” academic evaluation system. Although I am pursuing a PhD degree in the US, I am a Chinese and I earned my bachelor’s degree from a Chinese university. For my friends and I, “publish or perish” might have already become a common sense. We all knew that, if you were a junior faculty member looking for tenure, you would need publications; if you were a post-doc seeking faculty jobs, you would need publications; if you were a PhD student just looking for graduation, you would need publications. Yes, according to the policy in most Chinese universities, without a specific amount of publications, the PhD students cannot graduate or receive a PhD degree, including those students who do not plan to stay in academia. In comparison, most US universities, including my department, do not have a specific requirement on the number of publications to grant a PhD degree. I believe it is a more admissible approach considering that the pressure to publish could lead to low quality or unethical research outputs1,2, and it would be unreasonable to stop a student who has already got an industrial job offer from graduating. However, for US universities, not specifically requiring the number of publications for PhD graduation does not mean that they disapprove “publish or perish”. In fact, most US universities imperatively ask faculty members to publish in order to sustain the funding and advance their career3. Nowadays, there is almost zero chance for an applicant without a strong publication list to secure a faculty position in either the US or China.

In my opinion, the “publish or perish” evaluation system could be the result of the fierce competition in academia. In recent years, the number of PhD degrees awarded by US institutions has achieved all-time high4; more and more PhD graduates are competing for the small number of openings for faculty positions. Considering yourself as a member of the faculty search committee, you were looking for one candidate, but there were ~300 applicants who all had earned a PhD degree. How would you objectively filter out most of the applicants and only look for the best? While there is no single answer to this question, probably the most efficient and objective approach is to look at the applicants’ publication lists. Under this circumstance, not “publish” enough will make a PhD graduate “perish” in the academic job searching process. On a side note, even for PhD students looking for non-academic jobs, “publish or perish” could also influence their career paths due to the competitiveness of the job-searching process.

Image from Pixabay

Whereas there are many criticisms on “publish or perish”, I still believe it is the closest to an “ideal” evaluation system. First, publishing is a cultivating process, as it requires the PhD student to clearly convey the ideas, to effectively communicate with the editors, and to adequately address the reviewers’ (sometimes harsh) comments. With these skills acquired through publishing, the PhD student is more likely to excel in mentoring undergraduate students and collaborating with other researchers. Second, “publish or perish” is an objective evaluation system, as it could prevent the case when faculty supervisors subjectively decide whether the PhD students could graduate or not. Lastly, publishing frequently does not mean that the publication quality is low and ground-breaking researches cannot be made, as many Nobel laureates publish a huge amount of works in their careers.

Like many social systems, there may not be a truly “ideal” model or system for academic evaluations. “Publish or perish”, as a widely accepted academic evaluation system, should not be discarded just because of its potential drawbacks. On the other hand, the current “publish or perish” evaluation system could be improved; for example, the evaluation should be in favor of the quality of the publications, instead of the quantity of them.

I thank Scott Howard, Hansheng Ye, and Lina Cao (University of Notre Dame) for reviewing and proofreading this blog post.

References:

1. Publish or Perish. Nature 467, 252–252 (2010).

2. Fanelli, D. Do Pressures to Publish Increase Scientists’ Bias? An Empirical Support from US States Data. PLoS One 5, e10271 (2010).

3. Gad-el-Hak, M. Publish or Perish—An Ailing Enterprise? Phys. Today 57, 61–62 (2004).

4. National Science Foundation, 2017 Doctorate Recipients from U.S. Universities (2017). Available at: https://ncses.nsf.gov/pubs/nsf19301/

Go to the profile of Yide Zhang

Yide Zhang

Postdoctoral Scholar, California Institute of Technology

4 Comments

Go to the profile of Jiang Bian
Jiang Bian about 1 month ago


Cannot agree more for your last paragraph, whilst I think it is still quite tricky in terms of the quality of the publications. Especially in the recent AI and ML domain, a good "alchemy" may lead you a deep learning paper in NeurIPS (Rank A*), but the reality is that some seeming trivial but "provable" statistical work can only get you a AIstats (Rank B, now A in Core but in most list is B or C). In my opinion, some of them from AIstats contribute more to the community in a touchable way than certain NeurIPS which only has empty theatrics. However, on the job market, with a NeurIPS paper you can even beat another competitor with 2 or 3 AIstats in most of times. 

Go to the profile of Yide Zhang
Yide Zhang about 1 month ago

Thanks for your comment, Jiang. You are right, sometimes the journal impact factor/conference tier cannot reflect the true "quality" of a publication. However, as a reader, such as a researcher looking for new ideas, and an employer seeking competitive applicants, it is the easiest for them to judge the quality of a publication by its impact factor or tier. Like "publish or perish", it is not a perfect evaluation system either; as you said, research from lower-tier publications can contribute more to the community than the high-tier ones do in the long run. On the other hand, I think the impact factor/tier reflects the "average" level of all the publications from that journal/conference, so while some NeurIPS papers may be less "useful" than Alstats ones, on average, the NeurIPS papers should have higher quality due to its lower acceptance rate.

Go to the profile of Jiang Bian
Jiang Bian about 1 month ago

That's indeed a fair point, and NeurIPS has higher volume of submissions each year. Anyway, very inspired post and a good opening for the discussions.

Go to the profile of Lina Cao
Lina Cao about 1 month ago

True that, true that...