A Scholarly Scandal

The ‘publish or perish’ culture in academia, for academics, is too futile, for economists, too dry and for politicians, too prudish. Nonetheless, it reveals a rot at the heart of academia that sullies the knowledge foundation on which future studies, indeed, societies are built.

It has long been criticised, increasingly so, with the rise of the popstar intellectual Jordan Peterson and 'grievance studies’ Kween Helen Pluckrose on their objections to the ideological bias of university Humanities and Arts faculties.

Annually, 2 million new papers are published, however, this isn’t indicative of increased readership. Dishearteningly, half of the published research papers are never read, 90% never cited and of those that are peer reviews; half do not stand up to replication. While ‘scandal’ is a bit of a stretch (it’s more, a strain on wonk morale) such consequences have far-reaching impacts on the integrity of academic research.

The most obvious argument against this is that when academics are pressured to publish when they have nothing to say, there is a tendency for the literature to become bloated with subpar research and outright false or unscientific claims.

This was terrifically demonstrated (similar to the 1996 Sokal Affair) by the Grievance Studies Affair where three authors created bogus academic papers on topics about anything from dog rape to feminist Mein Kampf to expose the problem. The results were hilarious:

“ [The] papers claim that dog parks are rape-condoning spaces and that by observing the reactions of dog-owners to “unwanted humping” among dogs, we can determine that a human rape culture is deeply ingrained in men who could benefit from being trained like dogs. They [the papers] ponder why heterosexual men rarely self-penetrate their anuses with sex-toys and advocate doing so in order to become less transphobic and more feminist.”

Seven were accepted, and a further seven were in various stages of the submission process when the hoax project was discovered. *Wonk morale dies a little more*

Another problem is the publishing industry itself. The impact factor of an academic journal is a measure reflecting the yearly average number of citations to recent articles published in that journal. While frequently used as a proxy for the relative importance of a journal within its field, the popularity of a paper does not necessarily correlate with intellectual rigour. Increasingly, top universities are giving their academics ‘productivity targets’, which prescribe the number of publications and the impact level of the journal they must publish them in.

A prolific publishing culture means academics have little control over the publishing process. Publishers are the gatekeepers, they control when pieces are read, reviewed and published. Despite this lack of control, publishing has a direct impact on an academic's chances at promotions, grants, scholarships, and funding.

Replication has been referred to as "the cornerstone of science". A recent consequence of this issue and evidence for the decrease in quality of research is also the replication crisis, described by some at the ‘Tragedy of the Academic Commons’. Thus, as well as an absence of a structural incentive to peer review papers, when it does occur, half of the publications’ results are not replicable, even in disciplines such as Psychology, where it is easier to control variables, rather than Political Science, for example.

Another symptom is that it has resulted in less time for peer-review, further decreasing the quality of academic literature. Economists in top-ranked departments now publish very few papers in top field journals. There is a marked decline in such publications between the early 1990s and early 2000s. The share of papers authored by chaperoned senior authors grew from 16% to 22% between 1990 and 2012, while new senior authors dropped from 39% to 31%.

Although, this is not the result of the tragedy of pure rentier capitalism as some who object to paying for anything would have you believe. It is a problem of high impact journals having the power to make “chaperoned” scientists learn to frame their results in a way that is attractive to high-impact journals, to navigate the review process, and to work with the editor to give them the paper they are looking for.

This results in a plethora of problems. Among these, plagiarism, salami slicing (where the same research is split into many fragments and published) and newbies simply not having this knowledge or clout even if their research merits more credit than the established names.

Nonetheless, this does not convince everyone. The best argument in favour is perhaps that it keeps the nerds on their toes; constant pressure to publish means they don’t get ‘lazy’. However, the idea that the decline of a Darwinistic ‘publish or perish’ culture in academia would decrease both the amount and quality of research is ludicrous. These aren’t just any nerds, these are nerds on steroids who are fiercely passionate and proficient in their specialisms.

Research-oriented universities may attempt to manage the unhealthy aspects of the publish or perish practices, but their administrators often argue that some pressure to produce cutting-edge research is necessary to motivate scholars early in their careers to focus on research and balance this with the other responsibilities. This is, again not a fair case. Rewards for exceptional teaching rarely match rewards for exceptional research thus the pressure to publish detracts from the time and effort professors can devote to teaching undergraduates. Stringing together words when one has nothing to say results in spouts of utter drivel. Just take a look at the recent PMQs.

This issue has been published about extensively; see here, here and here, for example. One would have thought the problem would have perished by now, or at least lessened, but I’m not entirely sure this is the case. The solutions are two-fold: reduce the threat of perishing and change how we publish.

While the former solution is easier to articulate, it is more difficult to implement— requiring a change in attitudes. But one could start with getting rid of university ‘productivity targets’ and replacing them with targets consisting of peer review (to weed out ‘the charlatans, the misguided, and the fools’ (as astutely articulate in Gad-el-Hak, 2004, p. 61) and relating to the quality of their work which would naturally involve further peer review.

The latter could involve anonymous publishing, also helping to change attitudes to facts that don’t align with everyone’s feelings while allowing for genuinely critical peer reviews. Additionally, though the tendencies of academics to highly value ‘Science and Nature’ papers may still exist, the introduction of impact-neutral journals that evaluate science based only on rigour, rather than perceived "impact" would help.

Some question the validity of this perspective on the current state of academic research and argue that the new ‘get visible or vanish’ culture has heralded the end of the publish or perish dogma. But the Kim Kardashian Index which measures the discrepancy between a scientist's social media profile and publication record is telling; an academic that is ’visible’ is not always the author of the highest quality work.

In 2013, teacher’s pet Peter Higgs, the namesake of the Higgs boson, said "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 … I don't think I would be regarded as productive enough." While the maintenance of academic integrity isn’t the most seductive of topics, it is one that affects the information we use to make decisions on a daily basis. The hopeful thing is, however - it can be solved (as with most things) with grassroots change. Let’s start by cutting academics more slack on the number of papers produced so they aren’t all about dog rape and feminist Mein Kampf.