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Publish or Perish: Escaping the hamster wheel of academic research pursuits

Updated: Apr 4

27 November 2023.

Recently, the issue of “Publish-or-Perish” has come back onto the Australian science policy agenda, with the Chief Scientist, Dr Cathy Foley, saying that existing narrow research metrics are creating a “Publish-or-Perish” culture, perversely incentivising researchers to “publish iteratively”, chasing publication volume and citations rather than quality research.

Dr Foley was referring to the recent ACOLA publication, Research Assessment in Australia: Evidence for Modernisation. ACOLA proposes a research assessment system driven by leadership, collaboration, transparency, collegiality, integrity, and equity and diversity. The Council acknowledges that introducing changes may not be easy, as much depends on the culture within organisations, but “the results could be significant for Australia’s research and innovation ecosystem”.

In addition to addressing organisational culture, implementation will require addressing some serious systemic and embedded behavioural barriers.

Decades ago, academic publishing was simply a way for universities to share knowledge and contribute to the academic community. Academics were generally appointed with permanent tenure, and influential publications, often published by university presses, were a marker of eminence and prestige. This evolved as publication records and citations became a key criterion for hiring, promotion, tenure decisions, and grant funding.

More recently, publications and citations have become central metrics in international university ranking systems.

Besides the UK, Australia seems to be obsessed with university rankings. It has the highest proportion of Times Higher Education (THE) ranked universities, with 84% of Australian universities ranked, compared to 78% in the UK, 29% in Canada, 17% in South Korea, 15% in Japan, 13% in Germany, 4% in the US, and 3% in China.

We are now seeing rankings within rankings. For example, we have rankings that single out young universities/universities under 50, discipline rankings, regional university rankings, and so on. Many Australian universities have, as a publicly stated strategic objective, to increase their positions on global rankings scales.

International rankings in Australia are the entry point to what has emerged as a self-perpetuating cycle, or “Hamster Wheel” of academic research pursuit: institutions strive to enhance their reputation and brand through publications and citations, which will, in turn, attract more international students, who pay fees crucial for financing further research and publication, generating more citations, and so on. This is now the predominant business model of many Australian universities.

In addition, the Australian shift towards viewing education as a market commodity has also placed a premium on rankings and reputation, further fuelling the cycle. The reliance on external funding, often tied to publication outputs, has increased the pressure on academics to produce more and faster.

Early career academics, particularly, must Publish-or-Perish to stay on the tenure track. The recent US Academy of Management Meeting in Boston was attended by over 10,000 predominantly early-career researchers aiming to build their publication portfolio and a secure pathway towards tenure. The competition to stay on the tenure track is intense; this is a well-established aspect of academic culture across many disciplines.

Academic rankings implicitly favour uninterrupted, time-intensive research productivity, typically measured through publication counts, which can disadvantage those balancing family obligations with an academic workload. This can manifest in gender and other biases.

What’s worse, early career researchers are motivated to publish highly empirical research often disconnected from mid-level theory development. The result is that much research is simply “science as usual”, adhering to existing paradigms. This suits academic supervisors and research groups invested in maintaining their status quo of established research areas and methods.

Perhaps even more worrying are the behavioural tactics that academics and institutions deploy to artificially inflate citation metrics. These include excessive self-citation, the formation of citation rings or cartels where groups of academics collude to cite each other’s work, and selective journal submissions, where academics choose to publish in journals based more on the likelihood of receiving higher citation rates.

These and other methods can misrepresent the true academic value and impact of research and give authors unfair advantages in career progression, funding, and recognition. They can also lead to the erosion of trust in academic research and a distorted perception of an institution’s academic standing. The Australian Financial Review Rankings are an important step forward but apply only to Australian universities.

Publish-or-Perish is unlikely to break through paradigmatic barriers or reflect innovative research, resulting in intellectual conservatism and the perpetuation of disciplinary silos where new ideas or unconventional approaches are not pursued vigorously. It is also a ‘safer’ path to publication, as it typically involves well-established methodologies and poses less risk of rejection from academic journals. These observations are explored more fully in the ACOLA report for the Chief Scientist.

Addressing this issue is crucial and requires a collective effort not only from the academic community and institutions but also from research investors, book and journal publishers, and ranking bodies to develop more robust and ethical methods for evaluating academic impact and quality.

Over the years, numerous reports and papers have seriously attempted to shift the Publish-or-Perish culture, but their impact has been limited. Studies and discussions have contributed valuable insights into the limitations of the culture, including the recent work from ACOLA. But the dial has not shifted, and many apparently insurmountable barriers stand in the way. These can be shifted with time, resources, and commitment.

Over the longer term, however, greater diversification in Australia’s higher education landscape would seem to be the only viable strategy to permanently escape the Publish-or-Perish Hamster Wheel with its constraining impact on innovative and paradigm-shifting research. This diversification could involve stronger support for universities specialising in applied sciences and technology, requiring much less focus on global rankings and more on industry collaboration.

Strategically targeted public and industry research investment would reduce the pressure to obtain research income from international students in these institutions.

Germany, for example, has a highly diversified higher education system that includes 108 universities (which teach theoretical knowledge and emphasise research), 210 universities of applied sciences (which focus on professional application of knowledge rather than theory), and 52 colleges of art and music (to train young artists such as musicians, architects, fine artists and designers).

Only a few of these higher education institutions feel compelled to participate in international ranking systems, but the country has an R&D proportion of 3.14% in GDP—compared to Australia’s current 1.68%. This is in addition to comprehensive public funding of university education alongside apprenticeship support. Many would attribute Germany’s economic success to this approach.

With a diminishing public commitment to research and education in Australia, Vice-Chancellors are locked into the hamster wheel of investing in research-focused rankings to attract international student fee income to invest in further rankings-related research. The Government could free universities from the hamster wheel and emphasise achieving improved social and economic outcomes. However, it will have to choose to do so through a sustained program of public funding increases.

Originally Published in Pearls and Irritations, 27 November 2023.

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