Our careers as scientists are defined by metrics from an early stage, from the high grades in undergraduate and master’s courses required to be awarded a PhD position, to the number of publications, citations, H-index (author-level metric that measures the productivity and citation impact of a scientist) we need to boost to further our research career. PhD candidates who are new to academic circles must learn quickly about the workings of a scientific career. One thing that we learn early on is that a publication, preferably in a high impact and reputable journal, is something to work towards.
The term ‘publish or perish’ in academia refers to the importance placed on publishing your research rapidly and regularly in reputable journals in order to stay relevant and secure or further your next career phase. It alludes to the idea that those who publish early and often will thrive in their research careers while those who don’t will ‘perish’ or fall short in their careers, suggesting a ‘survival of the fittest’ nature to the job.
If you wish to pursue a long-term research career in academia after your PhD, it is true that publications can be a critical factor on your CV. While it is necessary to have a method for defining the credibility and authenticity of a scientist’s work, the problem for science arises when the end goal overshadows the journey. The rush for publication, that can be created in this environment, sometimes outweighs the consistency of credible science conducted with integrity.
Below are some points I recommend for you to keep in mind regarding the rush to publish research during your PhD:
1) Research by nature is a slow process, nothing happens overnight. Science is a continual, collaborative and increasingly multidisciplinary process. Science builds on science. The research you are conducting is likely built upon past research, and someone after you will build upon your research. While you need to keep the end goal in mind, try focus most of your energy on the process and doing it the best you can. In some cases a research paper can even take between 5-10 years from beginning to successful publication.
2) The pressure to publish has been suggested as a possible cause of poor work being submitted to academic journals (1) and difficulties with reproducing scientific results have been reported (2). This means that an experiment or research finding cannot be repeated in a different context by a second person with consistent results. In a recent survey by Nature, out of over 1500 scientists, 52% said there was a reproducibility crisis and 38% identified a slight crisis, although many still reported trusting the published literature (2). With the rush to publish, try to keep in mind the big picture of your research. What societal questions are you trying to address? Who is it meant to benefit? Work with consistent integrity and diligence and the scientific community will gain trust in your findings.
3) Professor Uta Frith, University College London, suggests we engage in “slow science” focusing on “care, precision and rigour” (3). Put more effort into developing robust experimental designs and pre-registration of your studies to avoid HARKING – hypothesising after results are known. Learn about the open science movement, this will help with sharing data and information on a world-wide scale. Yes, this means more work for you in the short-term but in the long run you will be helping address issues that the scientific community currently faces and will assist with reproducibility of your work in the future. As Prof. Frith states, “slow-down – improve the quality, resist the rush” (3).
4) A piece of useful advice I once received was to ‘stay in your own lane’, try not to get overly concerned about what everyone else is doing around you. If someone else has a successful publication, congratulate them, but try not to let it make you feel less successful. Focus on your work and conducting the best research you can, which will increase the chances of your own success.
5) While it is important to prioritise paper writing during your PhD, it is also important to work towards finishing your PhD. Papers that you began working on during your PhD can be completed and published after your PhD has finished while you are applying for your next position or getting a new post-doc project off the ground (unless you are in a university where publications are a requirement for your PhD). In this way, you can also keep a consistent publication record without gaps and spread out your work if you have quieter periods in your career after your PhD.
6) While first-author publications are important to focus on, don’t forget the value of other types of publications. Co-authorship may more quickly increase your number of publications. Co-authorship as a PhD student also helps demonstrate your ability to collaborate with others and contribute to different research projects which is a valuable skill as a post-doc or principal investigator. In addition, abstracts of posters presented at conferences that are published in the associated journal increases your number of publications. Perhaps consider preprinting your research paper, allowing you to share your results when they are ready. This involves uploading a completed draft of your paper to an open access repository before it has undergone a full peer review and publication process.
7) Learn to manage your well-being and put your health before achieving that high-impact publication. Recent research in Belgium reported that 1 in 2 PhD students experience psychological distress with 1 in 3 at risk of having or developing further problems such as depression (4). You and your health should be your main priority during your PhD.
There are many factors that contribute to a long-lasting research career with publications being one element. Remember that your research matters, don’t rush into bad science for fear of perishing but take your time and do your research well. It will benefit you in the long run.
4) Levecque, K., Anseel,F, De Beuckelaer, A, Van der Heyden, J, & Gisle, L. (2017). Work organization and mental health problems in PhD students. Research Policy, 46(4), 868-879.