Does Publish or Perish Kill Innovation?

If you’re a professor, you’re no stranger to the term “publish or perish.” And for good reason. The publish or perish phenomenon has been around since 1927 when consistent publication became the golden performance metric of successful professors. If faculty wanted to keep their jobs, they had to have the papers to prove they deserved it.

This trend is certainly alive and well today. In 2009 the University of Ottawa discovered that approximately 2.5 million—yes, million—scholarly scientific articles are published every year. Since the entire point of publish or perish is to create output, the standard certainly seems to be doing its job.

But at what cost?

Plenty of academics have opinions on publish or perish, but does any real evidence exist of its overarching positive or negative effects? The only way to find out—ironically—is to check out the published research.


First Up: The Pros of Publish or Perish

Researcher Phillip J. Clapham has taken a comprehensive look at the benefits of publish or perish. In fact, he’s published an entire article on why the phenomenon is not only good for the academic community, but undeniably necessary:

  • Publish or perish motivates professors to share their work. Without it, plenty of academics out there would be researching for years with no output.
  • Publishing encourages collaboration and sharing in the community. All professors naturally benefit from reading each other’s work and building on each other’s research.
  • Publishing leads to better research. It’s human nature to check your facts more thoroughly if you know someone will be reading your work.
  • Publishing is the only way for research to reach its full potential. Ultimately, writing papers forces professors to organize their data and turn it into a consumable paper.
  • Publication legitimizes your work as a professor. It allows others to benefit from your work and shows that you can see research through to the end.

In conclusion Clapham says, “To state that those who don’t publish may as well not do the work in the first place is undeniably harsh, though not unreasonable: if you don’t publish, you’re wasting everyone’s time and taking much-needed funding away from other scientists.”


But Publish or Perish Has a Dark Side

It’s important to acknowledge that Clapham’s pointers are mostly theoretical, the ideal of what publish or perish is hoping to accomplish. Most voices in this ongoing argument don’t deny that publish or perish needs to exist. They’re arguing that the publish or perish of modern academia has gone too far.

For one it’s led to a staggering amount of repetitive, meaningless publications. Professors often write six or seven papers to cover a single topic that could have been summed up in one. Plus the demand of publishing so often has had a negative effect on publication quality. Less time to research leads to sloppy, underdeveloped papers and results that aren’t replicable. Even studies claiming to expose faulty research have been called out on their sloppy execution. In a more troubling vein, the extreme pressure to publish is making it less appealing to be honest in academic research. We have no way of knowing how many false or poorly proven results have been sent to print to meet the publish or perish quota.

But again, most of these negative effects are theoretical with very little data to back them up. It can be easy to assume that all the negativity toward publish or perish is simply popular opinion. Of course professors hate the metric that puts their jobs on the line, but there is one negative side effect here that has hard, cold statistics to back it up.


The Real Casualty of Publish or Perish: Innovative Ideas

Perhaps the biggest issue that has arisen from publish or perish pressure is a general climate of low-risk research. Over time, the pressure has indeed been killing off academics’ ability to engage in meaningful, even world-changing discoveries. To understand the full extent of this problem, we need to take a closer look at a groundbreaking UCLA study.

In 2015, sociology professor Jacob Foster and his team of researchers wanted to know the truth about the academic publishing landscape. How many professors are publishing old ideas and how many are making fresh, innovative insights? The team gathered more than 6.4 million scholarly publications from 1934 to 2008. Once the database was assembled, they analyzed it to see if academics are more likely to write about theories that already exist or to blaze into new territory with new connections. Was productive tradition or risky innovation more common?

Turns out that more than 60% of research in the database took the safe road by building on existing research and making no new connections. Papers that asked more original questions and made innovative claims were much harder to find, making it safe to assume that these innovative papers are either half as likely to appear or twice as difficult to get published. However, when they did show up in the database, these papers were highly rewarded with scholarly awards and many more citations in other papers than their traditional counterparts.

In conclusion, Foster observed, “Published papers that make a novel connection are rare but more highly rewarded. So what accounts for scientists’ disposition to pursue tradition over innovation? Our evidence points to a simple explanation: Innovative research is a gamble whose payoff, on average, does not justify the risk.”

Where Does That Leave Us?

If publish or perish expectations have indeed become a stumbling block of innovation, then it’s safe to say that good intentions have gone too far here. Even Nobel Prize winner Peter Higgs has admitted that he couldn’t have survived today’s academic system. He published less than 10 papers after making his breakthrough scientific discovery and has gone on the record saying, “Today I wouldn’t get an academic job. It’s as simple as that.”

If even Nobel laureates can’t succeed in our system, then it’s definitely time for some changes here. Is there a quick fix? Probably not. But the important thing is to start exploring solutions now so we can get the wheels moving in the right direction.

At the end of their paper, Foster’s UCLA team proposed several ideas to get publish or perish under control and innovation back on track. Their core suggestions centered around decoupling job security from publishing productivity and restructuring university funding models to support specific professors instead of specific projects. Institutions like the Gates Foundation and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute have both tried these methods with some success, but changes like these still rely on institutional leadership. As an educator, you’ll have to take a different approach.


What Each of Us Can Do to Reclaim Innovation

Are there ways you can personally seek innovation despite the publish or perish atmosphere? To get your gears turning, here are a few simple ideas to make innovation your ultimate career goal and break free—even just a little bit—from the publish or perish mentality:

  1. Keep track of your diverse accomplishments—If you want diverse performance metrics, make sure publication isn’t the only thing you’re doing right. Maybe your students have a higher job placement after graduation. Maybe you’re mentoring a junior professor. Whatever your wins are, mention them in your yearly review with your department head. This will highlight your value outside of publishing.
  2. Find some trustworthy research students—This one is much easier said than done, but having exceptional assistants can make all the difference in your research. Aside from contributing good ideas, bright students can carry the weight of the research process, alleviate stress, and increase your capacity for innovative creativity. Plus you’ll be mentoring future minds in your field.
  3. Make room for riskier projects—As the UCLA research shows, true innovation requires a little gambling on your part. To find a great new idea, set aside specific time to pursue uncharted research that could be wrong. Try to always have a back-burner innovative project slowly simmering while you’re working on quicker projects to satisfy your publishing quota.
  4. Seek inspiration in your field—The one major advantage of the publish or perish phenomenon is the wealth of well-documented research at your fingertips. Take the time to familiarize yourself with your field’s publications. Knowing exactly what’s already been said can help you recognize a unique finding when you see one and think of new research areas you may have never considered.
  5. Increase collaboration—Once you’ve read what’s being published, now’s a great time to connect with your fellow academics and get inspired by the great minds around you. Take part in debates and discussions that will keep you refreshed and engaged with your field. This is one of the main reasons why publish or perish exists, so why not do it in real life?
  6. Don’t forget about the classroom—Publish or perish may steal attention away from teaching, but an estimated 62% of professors agree that teaching well should be the primary factor for promotion in an academic career. If you agree, then keeping your teaching standards high will keep you motivated. Make your classroom an exceptional learning destination.
  7. Produce successful graduates—There’s nothing more important to the future of your field than young new minds. To keep your area of study growing and thriving, pass on your passion to your students and help them develop valuable skills they’ll use long after they leave your class.

62% of professors agree that teaching well should be the primary factor for promotion in an academic career.

Successful students who inspire you are arguably the greatest innovative contribution you’ll make to the academic community—not meaningless papers. Want to fight back against publish or perish? Then search for the best ways to mentor exceptional students and arm them with valuable, usable skills. That is how you’ll innovate your field in the most long-lasting way possible.