Why do we need “publish or perish”?

June 23 JDN 2458658

This question may seem a bit self-serving, coming from a grad student who is struggling to get his first paper published in a peer-reviewed journal. But given the deep structural flaws in the academic publishing system, I think it’s worth taking a step back to ask just what peer-reviewed journals are supposed to be accomplishing.

The argument is often made that research journals are a way of sharing knowledge. If this is their goal, they have utterly and totally failed. Most papers are read by only a handful of people. When scientists want to learn about the research their colleagues are doing, they don’t read papers; they go to conferences to listen to presentations and look at posters. The way papers are written, they are often all but incomprehensible to anyone outside a very narrow subfield. When published by proprietary journals, papers are often hidden behind paywalls and accessible only through universities. As a knowledge-sharing mechanism, the peer-reviewed journal is a complete failure.

But academic publishing serves another function, which in practice is its only real function: Peer-reviewed publications are a method of evaluation. They are a way of deciding which researchers are good enough to be hired, get tenure, and receive grants. Having peer-reviewed publications—particularly in “top journals”, however that is defined within a given field—is a key metric that universities and grant agencies use to decide which researchers are worth spending on. Indeed, in some cases it seems to be utterly decisive.

We should be honest about this: This is an absolutely necessary function. It is uncomfortable to think about the fact that we must exclude a large proportion of competent, qualified people from being hired or getting tenure in academia, but given the large number of candidates and the small amounts of funding available, this is inevitable. We can’t hire everyone who would probably be good enough. We can only hire a few, and it makes sense to want those few to be the best. (Also, don’t fret too much: Even if you don’t make it into academia, getting a PhD is still a profitable investment. Economists and natural scientists do the best, unsurprisingly; but even humanities PhDs are still generally worth it. Median annual earnings of $77,000 is nothing to sneeze at: US median household income is only about $60,000. Humanities graduates only seem poor in relation to STEM or professional graduates; they’re still rich compared to everyone else.)

But I think it’s worth asking whether the peer review system is actually selecting the best researchers, or even the best research. Note that these are not the same question: The best research done in graduate school might not necessarily reflect the best long-run career trajectory for a researcher. A lot of very important, very difficult questions in science are just not the sort of thing you can get a convincing answer to in a couple of years, and so someone who wants to work on the really big problems may actually have a harder time getting published in graduate school or as a junior faculty member, even though ultimately work on the big problems is what’s most important for society. But I’m sure there’s a positive correlation overall: The kind of person who is going to do better research later is probably, other things equal, going to do better research right now.

Yet even accepting the fact that all we have to go on in assessing what you’ll eventually do is what you have already done, it’s not clear that the process of publishing in a peer-reviewed journal is a particularly good method of assessing the quality of research. Some really terrible research has gotten published in journals—I’m gonna pick on Daryl Bem, because he’s the worst—and a lot of really good research never made it into journals and is languishing on old computer hard drives. (The term “file drawer problem” is about 40 years obsolete; though to be fair, it was in fact coined about 40 years ago.)

That by itself doesn’t actually prove that journals are a bad mechanism. Even a good mechanism, applied to a difficult problem, is going to make some errors. But there are a lot of things about academic publishing, at least as currently constituted, that obviously don’t seem like a good mechanism, such as for-profit publishers, unpaid reviewiers, lack of double-blinded review, and above all, the obsession with “statistical significance” that leads to p-hacking.

Each of these problems I’ve listed has a simple fix (though whether the powers that be actually are willing to implement it is a different question: Questions of policy are often much easier to solve than problems of politics). But maybe we should ask whether the system is even worth fixing, or if it should simply be replaced entirely.

While we’re at it, let’s talk about the academic tenure system, because the peer-review system is largely an evaluation mechanism for the academic tenure system. Publishing in top journals is what decides whether you get tenure. The problem with “Publish or perish” isn’t the “publish”; it’s the perish”. Do we even need an academic tenure system?

The usual argument for academic tenure concerns academic freedom: Tenured professors have job security, so they can afford to say things that may be controversial or embarrassing to the university. But the way the tenure system works is that you only have this job security after going through a long and painful gauntlet of job insecurity. You have to spend several years prostrating yourself to the elders of your field before you can get inducted into their ranks and finally be secure.

Of course, job insecurity is the norm, particularly in the United States: Most employment in the US is “at-will”, meaning essentially that your employer can fire you for any reason at any time. There are specifically illegal reasons for firing (like gender, race, and religion); but it’s extremely hard to prove wrongful termination when all the employer needs to say is, “They didn’t do a good job” or “They weren’t a team player”. So I can understand how it must feel strange for a private-sector worker who could be fired at any time to see academics complain about the rigors of the tenure system.

But there are some important differences here: The academic job market is not nearly as competitive as the private sector job market. There simply aren’t that many prestigious universities, and within each university there are only a small number of positions to fill. As a result, universities have an enormous amount of power over their faculty, which is why they can get away with paying adjuncts salaries that amount to less than minimum wage. (People with graduate degrees! Making less than minimum wage!) At least in most private-sector labor markets in the US, the market is competitive enough that if you get fired, you can probably get hired again somewhere else. In academia that’s not so clear.

I think what bothers me the most about the tenure system is the hierarchical structure: There is a very sharp divide between those who have tenure, those who don’t have it but can get it (“tenure-track”), and those who can’t get it. The lines between professor, associate professor, assistant professor, lecturer, and adjunct are quite sharp. The higher up you are, the more job security you have, the more money you make, and generally the better your working conditions are overall. Much like what makes graduate school so stressful, there are a series of high-stakes checkpoints you need to get through in order to rise in the ranks. And several of those checkpoints are based largely, if not entirely, on publication in peer-reviewed journals.

In fact, we are probably stressing ourselves out more than we need to. I certainly did for my advancement to candidacy; I spent two weeks at such a high stress level I was getting migraines every single day (clearly on the wrong side of the Yerkes-Dodson curve), only to completely breeze through the exam.

I think I might need to put this up on a wall somewhere to remind myself:

Most grad students complete their degrees, and most assistant professors get tenure.

The real filters are admissions and hiring: Most applications to grad school are rejected (though probably most graduate students are ultimately accepted somewhere—I couldn’t find any good data on that in a quick search), and most PhD graduates do not get hired on the tenure track. But if you can make it through those two gauntlets, you can probably make it through the rest.

In our current system, publications are a way to filter people, because the number of people who want to become professors is much higher than the number of professor positions available. But as an economist, this raises a very big question: Why aren’t salaries falling?

You see, that’s how markets are supposed to work: When supply exceeds demand, the price is supposed to fall until the market clears. Lower salaries would both open up more slots at universities (you can hire more faculty with the same level of funding) and shift some candidates into other careers (if you can get paid a lot better elsewhere, academia may not seem so attractive). Eventually there should be a salary point at which demand equals supply. So why aren’t we reaching it?

Well, it comes back to that tenure system. We can’t lower the salaries of tenured faculty, not without a total upheaval of the current system. So instead what actually happens is that universities switch to using adjuncts, who have very low salaries indeed. If there were no tenure, would all faculty get paid like adjuncts? No, they wouldn’tbecause universities would have all that money they’re currently paying to tenured faculty, and all the talent currently locked up in tenured positions would be on the market, driving up the prevailing salary. What would happen if we eliminated tenure is not that all salaries would fall to adjunct level; rather, salaries would all adjust to some intermediate level between what adjuncts currently make and what tenured professors currently make.

What would the new salary be, exactly? That would require a detailed model of the supply and demand elasticities, so I can’t tell you without starting a whole new research paper. But a back-of-the-envelope calculation would suggest something like the overall current median faculty salary. This suggests a median salary somewhere around $75,000. This is a lot less than some professors make, but it’s also a lot more than what adjuncts make, and it’s a pretty good living overall.

If the salary for professors fell, the pool of candidates would decrease, and we wouldn’t need such harsh filtering mechanisms. We might decide we don’t need a strict evaluation system at all, and since the knowledge-sharing function of journals is much better served by other means, we could probably get rid of them altogether.

Of course, who am I kidding? That’s not going to happen. The people who make these rules succeeded in the current system. They are the ones who stand to lose high salaries and job security under a reform policy. They like things just the way they are.

One thought on “Why do we need “publish or perish”?

  1. Many of your points deserve more discussion, but it is relevant that scholarship in the quantitative disciplines (physics, mathematics, chemistry…. ) can be judged in a relatively objective manner. And that in those disciplines, scholars who can produce really top-flight, original work are always in demand. It is important for the future of academia that the very best young scholars continue to have such opportunities.

    Note that “very best” as used here is a stringent criterion. Perhaps 5% of the PhDs that are graduating from a top-20 university. The others may be bright, articulate, creative, and energetic; they may have had wonderful records at the school and college level — but they are not, at this last level, producing ideas that are truly extraordinary.

    Many of the remaining 95% will come to realize that their intellectual abilities (heretofore apparently without limits) do in fact have boundaries. This does not prevent the development of a productive career. But it does require a re-examination of goals.

    Published papers, and citations thereto are important quantitative measures of a person’s scholarly weight. Not the only measures, to be sure, but it’s hard to think of what we’d do in their absence.

    Like

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