Publications in academic research: Publish with a ‘Purpose’ and not just in the fear to ‘Perish’

Each scientific publication is an important milestone in a researcher’s career and growth in their research career is often assessed by number and quality (as judged by the impact factors of publishing journal) of publications. ‘Publish or Perish’ is a fact that known to everyone working in basic and biomedical science today. To publish a number of articles at a very early stage (during Ph.D.), however, cannot be a direct way to measure one’s ability and interest to do research later in time. Yet this is the only way to survive in science later in time as most of the research fellowships and grants are offered to base on the number of articles in total. This notion has become a very clear message to me with my own experience in research and after talking to hundreds of colleagues from four different labs at three different European universities during the last eight years. The continuous demand to publish is creating a system in academic research where publications are put on the top of everything in research rather the progress and advancement of knowledge in science and betterment of the society. To understand publication-biased system, it is very important to know the different stages of researchers in their career at the university or in research institutes.

The beginning (Ph.D.)

A Ph.D. position is a gateway to start an academic research career. Most of the European universities offer Ph.D. positions for a well-designed, approved and funded research projects and one publication as a first author is the least requirement to obtain a Ph.D. These funded projects are the results of effort made by a professor and many students (Ph.D. and postdocs) for over the years as well as collaborations involved. Therefore, the number and quality of publication per project are not only dependent on the lab but also on the field of research and type of study as well as the amount and duration of funding. Thus, a platform to begin a research career is completely different from one researcher to the other; yet all are put together to compete for the same fellowships and grants at the end of their Ph.D. and at the very beginning of their research career. This is reason why a publication at a very early stage cannot be a direct measure of research capability of a junior researcher: it could be much higher or far less than one would be inclined to think.

The middle (postdocs)

This is the most crucial time of a researcher’s career where one has achieved a Ph.D. and is partially skilled to perform quality research with great enthusiasm. This is also the time when a real struggle starts to get personnel fellowships and grants in order to build a position in science. If one has become successful to get a postdoc position, then one must make sure to be, directly or indirectly,   part of the whole publication game just in order to survive in science. Thus the talks among junior researchers are limited to ‘next publication’ rather than about creative ideas and sharing knowledge. And it is, alas, indeed not an irrelevant topic of discussion at the end as the long-term fellowships are limited and to get a fellowship or next grant depends on the number and quality of publications.

There is no ‘end’ but a ‘new beginning’ (assistant professors and professors)

This is the stage where one has managed to publish enough to start one’s own group or lab and one is expected to continue to do so for one’s whole career. Senior researchers expect more publications from the early stage researcher as this is the only way to survive in academia, and of course young researchers want to meet this expectation and grow further. This approach does not only lead to friction between the beliefs, understandings and admiration of each other’s work but also to losing the faith in the purpose of the publication itself. That is why despite publishing well, many researchers are leaving science owing to demotivation caused by the inability to digest the fact that they have to ‘publish to survive’ and not ‘publish for a purpose’.

The overall impact on ‘science’ is mirrored by ‘impact factor’ of a journal

Most of the researchers start doing research science because they value and trust knowledge or because they want to understand something interesting or to discover something unknown. However, the current system in academic research is driving researchers to increase the number of publications and cause unhealthy personal and professional environment. This unhealthy competition also affects directly the health of early stage researchers. A survey at two European universities revealed a decline in quality of life and increased depression among early and middle stage researchers. This shocking fact was revealed to me during a workshop organized at my university and I could not better apply to me or other researchers I have or had an opportunity to work in my research career.

When the researchers in academia already struggle to work for long hours (unpaid), to find a permanent position, experience difficulties in starting to plan a family and making a next career move, then, on top of that, the pressure of publishing in order to finish a Ph.D. and in order to survive in science is an additional cause of stress to them. The focus needs to be more on the quality of science rather than quantity as discussed by Australian scientist Alan Finkel. In addition the capability of a researcher and quality of his or her research should not only be measured in terms of number of publications and impact factor of a journal. How the pressure of publishing continuously puts the whole research community in danger of losing good scientists and reducing the quality of research should be an open topic of discussion and the prime focus of changes in current requirements and policies all around European universities and funding agencies.

By Dr. Piyush Jain,
Postdoctoral Researcher at KU Leuven

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