Publish or Perish Paradox Research Paper Starter

Publish or Perish Paradox

(Research Starters)

The "publish or perish" system is generally held as the key to higher education career advancement. This article separately examines the two parts of the proposition ("publish" and "perish") by first detailing the operations and trends of university libraries, scientific journals, and university presses, so as to give a concise picture of the composition and state of the academic publishing industry. Next, market factors that may be causing an increasing number of academics to "perish" rather than gain tenure are explored. This article also briefly describes some legislation that additionally influences the state of professional academia, and finishes with a look at one trend that may be related to the increasing difficulty of obtaining tenured positions at large research universities.

Keywords Dissertation; E-publishing; Liberal arts college; Monograph; Peer review process; Publish or perish; Teaching assistant; Tenure; Trade publisher; University press


The Publish or Perish Model

The motto publish or perish succinctly encapsulates what is and has been for many years central to the higher education career ladder. Professors and university administrators understand quite well that writing and publishing academic works in various academic journals, or publishing textbooks and other large works, are essential for career advancement and ultimately decides whether or not professors gain a tenured position at a university. Although the system of publish or perish is common knowledge among career educators, Clapham (2005) advises students that nothing is as important in furthering one's career than consistently publishing one's work. Clapham writes that "publications say that you are serious about research, and can take the scientific process all the way through to completion" (¶ 14).

The Journal of Scholarly Publishing published an article that arose from a Johns Hopkins roundtable of invited presidents, chief academic officers, policy and legal experts, leaders of scholarly organizations, heads of academic publishing centers, and librarians of major research universities across North America. This collection of academic experts, from some of the top schools in the United States, considered the academic publishing system for universities, and they came to some very important conclusions about the current system in the academic community. The roundtable noted that the three main criteria for measuring an academic paper's success are the following:

• the approval of the work through the peer review system,

• the number of research citations that an author receives,

• the prestige of the journal in which the academic paper appears.

They also noted that the results of successful publishing accrues "indirectly in the form of promotion and tenure within one's home institution, the awarding of grants and fellowships, or the appearance of attractive offers from other institutions" ("To publish and perish," 1998, ¶ 13).

The Purpose of Publishing

The roundtable also outlined the fundamental role of publishing within the academic community. The authors wrote that publication accomplishes "four objectives of critical importance to universities and colleges." These four objectives are the certification, dissemination, indexing, and archiving of research and scholarship. Therefore, the primary reason for the "publish or perish" model that operates in universities is that publishing academic works, while serving to advance the knowledge within an academic field, also provides a method for assessing the value of author contributions to a given field. Within academic publishing, the peer review mechanism also helps publishers to decide whether they should accept an article or larger manuscript. The peer review mechanism verifies the value of any given contribution—and thereby the author as well —for a given field of knowledge. This is why the roundtable concluded that publication is considered the "primary channel through which individual faculty demonstrate their worthiness for tenure, promotion, grants, and fellowships" ("To publish and perish," 1998, ¶ 12).

Powell (2006) confirmed that submitting and publishing academic papers is central to career advancement when she writes that the best advice to anyone entering the academic market today is that "the most productive thing they can do is to work on scholarship" (¶ 11). Powell urges all professionals to write articles and make sure to complete one's research and writing, and to persistently follow through to publication. This gives professionals a much stronger advantage by being more marketable within their career fields (Powell, 2006, ¶ 11).

Since experience could be quite effective for preparing students in medical or legal professions, it seems reasonable that relevant university departments might prefer hiring professors strongly based on their practice-related experience. However, Powell quotes an expert in the field of law who says that anyone interested in teaching law needs to have a lot of personal drive for publishing academic work. This same expert, who is responsible for selecting law professors for a major university, is quoted in Powell's article as saying, "a person who has spent 20 years in practice and has a sterling record as a litigator, but who has never tried to do any publishing, is a person I'm probably not going to hire because that's a person who isn't driven to do scholarship" (Powell, 2006, ¶ 9).

Powell notes that this trend is especially true at elite law universities such as Harvard or Yale, and that the academic marketplace in general increasingly demands scholarly publication over experience. In the same article another expert, the associate dean for academic affairs at Howard University, said that the overall trend in all law schools is to place much more emphasis on scholarship than practical experience (Powell, 2006, ¶ 10). Thus, when we speak of the publish or perish model within the educational profession, we really are speaking about the prevalence of this model in all academic fields. Bunce (1996) also confirms this point when he writes that academic promotion and tenure are "strictly based on the amount of publishing you do and the money you bring in research grants" (¶ 18). Considering the discipline-wide and nationwide use of the publish or perish paradigm in colleges and universities, the surrounding circumstances (that is, the changes in technology or market conditions) that might influence whether this long-standing paradigm is still effective should be examined. Although the "publish" part of the motto is closely connected to the circumstances of the "perish" part of the motto, the two parts should be analyzed independently—there will be some overlap of discussion because one part of the proposition influences the other.


There has long been a tradition that universities—and university libraries in particular—should supply as many of the academic journals and other research periodicals as possible to their faculty. According to the Johns Hopkins roundtable, this tradition has operated well for schools since the mid-twentieth century because the volume of published material was manageable for university departments and libraries. However, this tradition is now straining the current budgets of universities. The roundtable’s findings point out that "the expectation that many faculty members exert on their institutions continues to be that 'the institution will provide,' regardless of cost, regardless of changes in the circumstances of academic publishing." The authors remarked that this of course seems like a reasonable expectation from the faculty's perspective, but "given the market forces that now shape the economies of universities and colleges, the unreasonableness of the expectation from the institution's point of view becomes more apparent" ("To publish and perish," 1998, ¶ 13).

The Cost of Publication

There are many academic university presses that are part of this traditional publishing network distributing academic publications throughout the nation's university libraries. Ewers (2004) points out yet another problem university presses are experiencing: The tradition has been that university presses are not actually intended to be profitable operations, but the steep rise of production costs is causing a clear risk that these presses may go bankrupt. Ewers noted that, when the first university presses came into operation at the beginning of the twentieth century, "the president of Columbia [University] remarked that they would publish important academic work that was 'destitute of commercial value'" (¶ 5). Ewers observed that today, "a first book in the humanities costs around $25,000 to produce but brings in only $15,000," meaning these university presses may be losing larger amounts of money than they did in the past. This has an effect on how many books they can publish (Ewers, 2004, ¶ 5). This also may have an effect on which books they decide to publish.

The Johns Hopkins roundtable made this same observation about increasing prices, but from the point of view of the libraries rather than university presses. One of the invited experts, David Shulenburger, then-provost at the University of Kansas, gathered some revealing data concerning the academic publication market. Shulenburger noted that between 1986 and 1996 the consumer price index increased by 44 percent. During that same period, the cost of monographs increased by 62 percent. He also noted that the cost of scholarly journals increased by 148 percent. His research shows that the "price of subscriptions to online databases grew even more rapidly, in the most notorious case by over 350 per cent in a single year" (cited in "To publish and perish," 1998, ¶ 6). Related to these trends, Freitas (2003) also wrote about some of the significant changes occurring in the publishing industry, and noted that there is a "new emphasis on the bottom line at university presses," which is in turn having an effect on the career paths of educators. Because books are quite expensive to publish, many university presses are trying to print books that will sell a larger print run. Some scholars are attempting to sell books as ebooks to increase circulation of their ideas (Jeffress & Lyle, 2012). Freitas observes that in the academic publishing industry it is fairly common knowledge that marketability and profitability are now the top priorities of university presses, and that this is causing the traditional monograph to virtually disappear (Freitas, 2003, ¶ 3).

Industry Consolidation

Teute (2001) writes about market forces causing adverse effects in publishing. There has long been a trend toward consolidation of publishing houses, and the market is now dominated by "a few conglomerated behemoths." Teute noted that there are increasingly "a lot of mediocre books" that come from these "conglomerated behemoths." Teute made an important point in commenting that a book's potential for higher sales does not always mean a book possesses higher quality; in fact, there could even be a negative correlation. Like Freitas's observation above, Teute noted that "university presses have not been immune to these forces, and are beginning to function like trade publishers." In other words, the university press editors have been seeking and promoting books that they believe will cross over to the general reading market. Teute believes that "ultimately trade marketing standards have an adverse impact on the publication of scholarly monographs." The university press takes its resources and concentrates them on promoting trade books, which often means that specialized studies or detailed research projects are either rejected or put at the bottom of the publishing priority list. Teute argued that scholars whose topics are suitable to a general public readership are often pressured to distort their scholarship to make it even more approachable to the general public; this is done by "shortening texts, popularizing arguments, and minimizing scholarly apparatus" (Teute, 2001, ¶ 7).

Subject Marketability...

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