“Publish or perish”. A phrase uttered ad nauseam; from faculty, colleagues, peers, and administrators, print and social media. Heck, even family members and friends. Where to even begin? And why am I feeling nauseous already? Never mind. “Begin at the beginning” the King said gravely, “and go on till you come to the end. Then stop.”
New Beginnings and New Lessons: “Welcome to the Program!”
Every year our college welcomes its new PhD students and faculty members. There’s an informal pot-luck-style dinner party, usually at the home of one of our faculty. New students are introduced to the faculty, their mentors and research advisors, cohort members and other doctoral students. It’s nice.
I can’t help but recall a particular instance: A senior faculty member, making the rounds, inquiring of one student, then another (and another, and so on...) about how many “pubs” they had. How many peer-reviewed articles? How many chapters? Anything in a high-ranked journal? What about grants? Behavior I’ve seen repeated at subsequent gatherings, from different people. Perhaps I’m embellishing a bit in retrospect, but the point was made.
Our coursework periodically reinforced this message. We were being molded into academics, which in part entails engaging with and contributing to the scholarly literature; the sooner the better. As such, several core classes were designed with the expectation that our work would culminate in a publishable output. Meaning by the end of the program we would be established within the scholarly literature and thus “competitive on the market”. A benign goal, but potentially troublesome as a necessary condition or if transformed into the principle task. Trial and error, learning the fundamentals, rigor. These are the essentials components of foundational courses. But I digress for the moment.
Lesson #1: “Numbers Matter”
Travails of Junior Faculty
For new PhD students, junior faculty are great assets. They are just starting out their academic careers. They’re eager, excited; with the perfect blend of experience and perspective (i.e. a few years under their belt as faculty, balanced with clear and vivid memories of the life and times of a PhD student). After a couple of years in an academic setting, you’ll notice that this isn’t a time to celebrate. The academic "rat race" isn’t quite over yet. Now it’s time to “get tenure”.
Almost uniformly, I’ve seen and heard junior social work and social science faculty, at conferences across the U.S. and abroad, worrying about number of publications, presentations, grant applications, total grant funding, etc. It’s not unlike watching a horde of gawky adolescents, questioning whether they are “good enough” compared to their peers. Each new publication is an opportunity to celebrate, but often collapses into intellectual and professional insecurity. No time to stop. The (tenure) clock is counting down. Perhaps one more article could be submitted and placed “under review”?
Lesson #2: “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough”
Reflections On My Own Journey
For better or worse I’ve internalized many of these experiences. How many publications is enough? Will other job candidates have longer CVs? Do I need more quantitative publications? Are they in the best journals? If I publish too much, will I be told I’m “trying too hard”? Job application descriptions haven’t eased this apprehension. Nor has the profession’s renewed focus on research “productivity”.
Lesson #3: “If You Ain’t First, You’re Last”
Towards An Ideal System
The publish or perish culture is not ideal. But does it really exist?
I demur. Does it matter whether it does?
So long as students, junior faculty, and other academics believe that it does, they will act accordingly. The mere belief that one is being judged by such crude metrics is enough to pressure one into playing the game and to learn its shallow lessons.
Social work and other social sciences should move toward a system which actively and openly reaffirms and promotes classical scientific values (e.g. the search for truth, transparency, fallibility, etc.) and traditional intellectual virtues (i.e. to “dare to know”; to value “hard work”; and to “hurry slowly with reflection”); and evaluate its members by such standards.
This won’t be found in the length of one’s CV, by the number of first-author papers, total grant funding, etc. As a student and future scholar, I want to be judged on the intellectual depth and rigor of my work, by its strengths and weaknesses, by the degree by which I embody and act in relation to those classical standards.
“How many pubs do you have???”
Why does it matter? And where's the nearest trash can?