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The Perils of Publish or Perish: How Current Academic Incentives Undermine Science and Society

In the world of academia, the mantra "publish or perish" (POP) has long been the unwritten rule that governs the careers of countless scientists and researchers. On the surface, it seems to promote a relentless pursuit of knowledge, incentivizing scholars to continually produce and share their findings. However, this system, built on the idea of meritocracy, has shown signs of straying from its noble intentions, leading to unintended consequences that merit a closer, critical look.

Let's begin by unraveling the idea of merit in scientific publishing. Professor Imad A. Moosa invites us to ponder: how do we actually evaluate the quality of a scientific publication? Quantity can be counted, but quality cannot be so easily measured. It becomes especially complicated when we consider the prestige and ranking of the journals in which papers appear. For example, how do we compare the merit of a single-authored paper in a journal ranked 20th in its field to that of a paper co-authored by ten people in a journal ranked 5th? The assumption that higher-ranked journals equate to higher quality work is not only flawed but also dodges the question of individual contribution and impact.

Furthermore, the POP culture can undervalue essential components of academic life, such as teaching, mentorship, and community service—all of which enrich the student experience and society as a whole yet do not count as "publications" on a CV. This creates an imbalance in the value attributed to different aspects of a scholar's work, which can be severely detrimental when academics are favored for their publishing record over their overall contribution to the educational landscape and society at large.

In his critique, Moosa raises a point echoed in "The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good?" by highlighting how the dark side of meritocracy can damage the communal fabric of the academic world, promoting a hierarchy based less on the intrinsic quality of contributions and more on their quantifiable aspects. This system may inadvertently lead researchers to pursue topics that are more likely to be published quickly in prestigious journals, rather than focusing on studies that could provide significant societal benefits.

The POP model also discourages openness and collaboration, as evidenced by one academic's resistance to the open review process during a conversation on social media. Such resistance showcases a preference for closed-door examination over healthy public discourse. In contrast, transparency in the review process not only improves the quality of research by subjecting it to wider expert scrutiny but also aligns with the objectives of organizations like the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) to enhance communication among scientists and between scientists and the public.

Another POP-related trend is the surge in multi-author papers, reducing the prevalence of single-author publications. This shift could suggest collaboration and interdisciplinary efforts, but it can also indicate unethical authorship practices. The latter includes the unfair inclusion of individuals who did not contribute significantly to the work or the exclusion of those who did. Such practices undermine the integrity of the publishing process and can foster mistrust among colleagues and within the scientific community.

It's time to ask ourselves whether the POP model and our definition of merit are genuinely serving the common good. Are we cultivating a fertile ground for truly transformative research, or are we burying the seeds of innovation under the weight of publish-or-perish pressures? By redefining merit in a way that recognizes a broader spectrum of scholarly contributions, we might rediscover the essence of academia as a storytelling platform for society's progress—a realm where the common good regains its rightful place at the heart of our collective intellectual pursuits.

In our next blog post, we will explore alternative models that prioritize not just the quantity of publications, but the richness of research's contributions to the world. Let us not resist the change, but instead embrace the discussion and transparency that can lead to a brighter and more inclusive academic future.


"The perceived benefits of rewarding scientists on the basis of merit require the definition of merit. Under the POP model, merit is measured by the quantity and quality of publications, but how do we measure the quality of publication?" Moosa, Imad A.. Publish or Perish: Perceived Benefits versus Unintended Consequences

"is there more merit for one of ten authors of a paper appearing in a top journal (say ranked 5) than for a single author in a journal that is ranked 20? We will see that journal ranking is a hazardous business and that not every paper published in a top journal is a high-quality paper. When POP is the rule of the land, there is no merit in non-research activities (such as teaching and community service), no merit in non-article publications, and no merit in good research that does not get published in a top journal very quickly." Moosa, Imad A.. Publish or Perish: Perceived Benefits versus Unintended Consequences

In the book "The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good?", the question is precisely what happened to the common good. Thus, merit has this dark side effect of destroying the common good, even though people around it insist to defend that it is good for all. It values, on the academic world, ranks, prestige, and gives those research confidence enough to look down other researchers that did not fit on the metrics. It creates a fake idea of intelectual superiority on numbers that are designed to measure just one thing, or a small number of things in science. Not necessary the best for all, for the common good.

"the POP culture discourages research that is beneficial to the society as a whole. Moosa, Imad A.." Publish or Perish: Perceived Benefits versus Unintended Consequences

"Under POP, the objectives change from advancing society to advancing (or preserving) oneself by building an ‘impressive’ CV containing 250 publications." Moosa, Imad A.. Publish or Perish: Perceived Benefits versus Unintended Consequences

Nowadays, a single author can produce 70 papers a year.

One time I was talking to someone that publishes a lot, online on a Facebook group. The person was hostile to the open review process, that brings transparency to the process. It alsos creates the opportunity to discuss our papers openly. As I see it, for publishing, there is no concern on discussing your paper publicly. For me, being able to discuss my work publicly was amazing, for the person, it is unnecessary. It became unnecessary to hear what the others have to say, most of the publications process are closed, no transparency. Trying to publish a readable paper became second, or even, not present at the publication goals.

(1) enhancing communication among scientists, engineers and the public [objectives of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS)] [this goal is totally lost under the POP]

"A POP-related phenomenon, which has been observed in academic publications across journals and disciplines, is that of the diminishing numbers of single-author papers and the rising number of authors per paper." Moosa, Imad A.. Publish or Perish: Perceived Benefits versus Unintended Consequences

"Unfair authorship in scientific publications is one of the most common types of violations of publication ethics, which is associated either with the unfair inclusion among authors of persons who do not meet the criteria for authorship, or, conversely, with the concealment of the real performers of scientific work. " Unethical Authorship in Scientific Publications

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