Publish and perish

There is an adage in science that goes “publish or perish”. It describes the prevailing atmosphere whereby a scientist must get published regularly in respected peer-reviewed journals to maintain a career in the field of science. Plenty of publications are to scientists what good critical reviews are to film stars and chefs – essential for developing a solid reputation, and in the case of science, carrying on their work through the attraction of scarce funding.

The simple fact is, if you do not have funding in this current era, you simply cannot do science.

“Publish or perish” is the perfect descriptor for the way modern science has become; a competition for kudos and money, with a rapacious hunger for ‘original’ results that don’t push the bounds into areas too uncomfortable or too challenging for the current paradigm to handle. It is the overlooked downside of the system by which funding for science is distributed; its effect on the people who do science ignored… its effect on science not accounted for.

With complaint and grumble, but without sufficiently serious questioning or effective challenge, everyone in science seems to subscribe comfortably to the adage. After all, our world operates on the belief that it is competition that produces the best results, and that somehow, without the drive of competition to keep us 'on our toes', the system will somehow collapse into a 'whatever' style of laxity that will kill any true progress.

There is unwillingness to really challenge this system because the power players who do well in it like it just the way it is – they know how to operate effectively and successfully within it and why fix something that isn’t broken? The people who do not do so well, who dare speak up in resistance, are too easily dismissed as second-rate scientists seeking an excuse for their lack of success. People whose careers in science have perished so completely that they are no longer a part of the system, cannot effectively call for reform: it is very difficult, if not impossible, to make change to a system when you are outside of it, no matter how obviously flawed it is. The result is that the environment of “publish or perish” continues to thrive.

As long as the good science we need to survive is produced in the end, you may wonder why any of this matters. But if we focus only on the glossy results promoted to us in the media, then some important considerations about the nature of scientific publication and the way it is driving science are being overlooked.

Far from abstract concepts, these considerations impact on us all profoundly, whether we know it or not.

What is the effect of having placed reliance on the publication process as the arbiter of what constitutes good science? It is believed that the publication process is where scientific research is subject to the most intense scrutiny by highly qualified peers. The editorial processes in the high-end journals have been perceived to be second to none – their names synonymous with quality and absolute reliability. But is this in fact the case?

Mistakes are being made in scientific publications at a significant and increasing rate. The result has been the retraction of papers, and the need to publish substantial corrections because mistakes are passing through what is meant to be the most rigorous system, undetected. There have been problems with the manipulation of results, and outright fraud. That these flaws have not been picked up by the strongest editorial boards in some of the most prestigious journals is concerning to say the least. If it has been decreed under the “publish or perish” maxim that publication is the ultimate arbiter of the quality of a scientist’s work, then quite simply the system is failing.

Substandard, flawed and corrupt studies are receiving not just the accolades that come with publication, they are doubly rewarded by the greater ease with which the scientist in question can apply for and receive further funding.

Do not forget that these errors can take years to be detected, verified and publicised. Many errors are never detected at all.

Another consideration relates to the fiercely competitive arena in which scientific journals operate. Most are competing for readership, subscription and prestige, and in no small part, their competition is ‘won’ on the volume of ‘original’ research they produce. There are a number of problems that flow from this. One is that there is a certain style editors are looking for, a type of approach to science that researchers learn quickly to fulfil. This produces a strange conservatism, bound by a conformity that places editors’ preferences ahead of what is really needed. Another significant problem is that in the competitive world of science there is a bias against the publication of studies that replicate previous ones. Whether they are confirming or denying the original findings, replication studies form a crucial part of modern science – after all, one of the proclaimed tenets of evidence-based science is that it must be able to be replicated. However, and in spite of its importance, it is not a great drawcard for publication. This creates a bias against replication style studies being accepted for publication, which flows through to affect the funding for the scientists who choose to do it. This is a problem for those scientists, who may pour time and effort into work that will go unrecognised, making further funding less obtainable. It is a serious problem for science, because replication is then avoided by virtually every scientist, with a handful of exceptions1.

The paradigm of "publish or perish" has allowed a very particular culture of what constitutes 'good' science to trickle through and affect all science and the scientists who do it. The way they approach science has become geared not towards the science itself, the needs of humanity, and the willingness to shake the boundaries of our thinking about life, but rather towards doing the sort of science that will garner publication. Who can blame them?… Surely it is wiser to do this than it is to fall into a financial pit that will end your career? Surely it is better to get something out there and survive, than get nothing at all and professionally perish?

But the price for this is incredibly high, paid by us all in creating a type of conservatism in thinking and an aversion to risk that is an anathema to the true nature of science.

By making publication the raison d’être of science, it seems we have lost the purpose of what science in fact is. It has corrupted and reduced science to a perverse game, played conservatively, in which its proponents have become so clever at tailoring what they do to meet journalistic requirements, that what is needed or called for by humanity is simply overlooked. The fact that science is not serving people, the fact that many have lost trust in it, does not seem to matter. Such considerations have no place in the model that is more interested in serving itself.

So we have arrived at the point at which scientists, the men and women who stand at the very limit of human knowledge, have become risk averse, and dance to the tune played by publishers and not life itself.

This is a state that might build a very safe and admirable career, but where does it leave science? While their eyes are trained too keenly on playing a game of meeting man-made requirements, they are blind to the grander vista of all that is unknown and that which would truly serve us to know.

"Publish or perish" has created the breeding ground for the errors and the corruption that are marring the credulity of science and ultimately breaking our trust in it. “Publish or perish” has become a case of “publish and perish”, for it has become the placeholder for a profoundly reductionist way of thinking about all of life, demanding a conformity that has produced a barren waste ground for the genius that will take us to our next evolutionary step as a species.

We all perish when we have a science that exists only to serve its own needs.


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  • By Dr Rachel Mascord, Dentist, writer and observer of life