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'Publish Frequently or Perish' culture: How is it affecting academia?

"We've been asked to write a journal paper almost every month!" declared an academician friend of mine in frustration just a few days back.

While, it is a well-known fact that all academicians have to go through the ordeal of 'Publish or Perish" which is a determinant: of a culmination of particular research work, of their contribution and prowess in their respective research fields and to their parent institutes, of performance and getting promoted in the incessant academic rat race; it should also be remembered that research and publication is not something which can be churned out like butter from milk or at the whims and fancies of any other person other than the researchers.

Any quality research and its consequent publications require an idea to work on (which is the most challenging part), a thorough background knowledge of the field the researcher wants to work on, a thorough review of the existing works related to the idea, an understanding of the novelty of the work, the contribution the research will make in its relevant field, meticulous planning to bring the idea to fruition, writing and submission of a project proposal (in case the research work requires extensive funding and other infrastructure), and then execution of the plan to obtain the desired results. Also, it may so happen that the plan may not produce the intended results on the first go and one may have to modify the whole or part of the working plan accordingly. Failures or outcomes different from the expected ones are a part of the process which is embedded in the word 're-search' itself.

Thus, the speed of publication (from the inception of a research idea to its execution) is vastly different across disciplines and even within disciplines. The type of work (theoretical or lab-oriented), availability of the required infrastructure, journal subscriptions and funding, and quality of support from the administration and peers are some of the factors that affect the quality as well as the speed of publication.

With numerous higher educational institutions (HEIs) coming up throughout India and the world, it is imperative that the minimum prescribed educational standards are met in accordance with changing requirements worldwide. Thus accreditation, a comprehensive and powerful quality assurance tool (with rigorous external peer evaluation on all verticals of an HEI), is required to assess the HEIs so that they comply with the minimum requirements. Moreover, the accreditation process helps the HEIs in the holistic development of their academic structure by analyzing their drawbacks and working on them. A good accreditation score not only improves the goodwill of the HEI but also attracts good faculty and students, facilitates research funding from various agencies, and accelerates the chances of better student placements. And for a good accreditation score, the HEIs are expected to have a robust research and innovation culture as most of the accreditation agencies put quite some weightage on the research and innovation segment.

Consequently, the HEIs, especially the new ones, in a bid to obtain accreditation or to get good scores, badger their faculty as well as their research scholars to publish papers, even without proper infrastructure at times. The HEI authorities probably work with the philosophy that pressure begets increased productivity, i.e. say for e.g., if one is pressurized to publish 3-4 papers per semester, at least one paper will be published.

But is it the right way to go about it?

Let's take a look at some of the consequences of this approach....

  • Establishes visibility: Research publications establish visibility of the researchers in their respective fields and open up avenues for collaboration with well-known researchers. It also aids in receiving research grants from well-established funding agencies.

  • Helps in progress in one's academic career and aids in promotion.

  • Research, if done with integrity and following the proper protocols, promotes accuracy and assures accountability.

  • Helps in furthering quality research by providing quality publications as references.

  • Increases the number of publications of the individual researcher and also establishes a good research culture for the HEI.


According to a Guardian article published almost a decade ago:

Peter Higgs, the British physicist who gave his name to the Higgs boson, believes no university would employ him in today's academic system because he would not be considered "productive" enough.
Peter Higgs also mentioned, "It's difficult to imagine how I would ever have enough peace and quiet in the present sort of climate to do what I did in 1964."
  • Faculties whose scope of work is lab-oriented often cannot produce the desired paper if proper laboratory infrastructure is not available for them to work on. This forces them to resort to some short-term research work or theoretical work which they may not be comfortable with, which often leads to a decrease in the quality of the publication. Even if, laboratory infrastructure is available - the planning of the work and acquiring the required materials takes time (if it is not already available); research fellows/students/other helping hands are required for laboratory work as the faculty will not always be able to work on his own in the lab with other academic responsibilities and they may not be readily available. Also, lab-oriented research often takes longer times as the results obtained may not be favourable at the first go and may need to be redone. If that happens, one cannot publish as frequently without obtaining the desired results. Again, negative results are also results which tell the researchers what NOT to be done to get a specific result. But, these results are not encouraged to be published which diminishes the effort behind the work and limits the number of replication studies done.

  • Researchers scramble over "paper-cranking" with whatever little research material they have rather than improving on their research idea, or enhancing their research skills or knowledge. This leads to "salami slicing" where several small papers are published in journals with low-impact factors instead of publishing a single paper in a high-impact journal with the comprehensive work. This leads to a loss of value of the work and the significance of the work becomes inconspicuous.

  • Adoption of Unethical Practices -

  • Duplicate publications: In a bid to increase the number of publications, researchers have been found to publish the same work in more than one journal by changing the title, keywords, languages in the abstract, some words in the introduction, some words here and there, etc. But the work remains the same. As a reviewer, at times I have encountered exact paragraphs of the same author in two different journals. This is a dubious practice and raises questions about the authenticity of the work and the researcher.

  • To boost their publication numbers, researchers often include each other in their work leading to authorship in numerous publications without even having enough or no contributions to the research in question. This violates the internationally followed Vancouver Recommendations which defines authors as those who:

  1. Contributed substantially to the conception or design of the work; or the acquisition, analysis, or interpretation of data for the work; and

  2. Drafted the work or revised it critically for important intellectual content; and made a final approval of the version to be published; and

  3. Agreed to be accountable for all aspects of the work in ensuring that questions related to the accuracy or integrity of any part of the work are appropriately investigated and resolved.

  • Some researchers fabricate results for faster publication thus compromising the integrity of research.

  • Increase in the number of predatory journals or journals only for profit: The whole idea of a research publication is the advancement of scientific ideas and knowledge, and provide references for further work. Hence, the quality of research is of primary importance to have maximum outreach. However, these journals, which look only for profit-making, do not consider the quality of work into consideration. They do not have a proper review system and they don't address duplicity of publications or poor language, which often leads to improper representation of research and misrepresentation of data unknowingly by many authors.

  • The strength of an educational institution not only lies in its research but also in teaching, especially in Indian institutions which cater to large and diverse student groups. Quality teaching takes a backseat for many faculty as they scramble for research publications under relentless pressure thus affecting the teaching standards of the HEIs. Hence, faculties focusing mainly on research publications for their promotions and job security act as a deterrent to pedagogical teaching and affects a student's education.

Publication is necessary for the validation and promotion of accuracy of the research work, sharing of reliable information through research worldwide which leads to progress, and advancement of research in the relevant field. Be it solutions to climate change, or ways to break down plastic so that it is not harmful to nature, or solutions to water scarcity, or invention of vaccines to tackle COVID or any new health problems, or technologies for an easier lifestyle - the massive amount of work, analysis and data required for cutting-edge research or the pursuit of any remedy needs to be backed up by academic publication (in renowned journals having a rigorous review process) for the society to believe and understand it. Hence, it is the moral responsibility of all researchers to provide accurate information in their articles and opt for journals which has a rigorous review process; the HEIs also should promote and support the same, without pressurizing the faculty to publish frequently. HEIs and administrators should also focus on enhancing the teaching pedagogies along with the faculties and provide the faculty with adequate leeway to decide how to balance both teaching and research without adversely affecting each other. Then and only then will an HEI develop holistically and thrive in the current academic scenario.

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