Could We Please Publish Less?

“Writing journal articles is one of the least intellectually gratifying activities in academia. It’s better to write books,” a hotshot international relations professor recently told me after a research seminar. As is so often the case when a senior colleague offers advice to a newbie like me, our discussion focused on the game: a euphemism for the Darwinian publishing race in which western academics have to participate, in order to make a living. A few years ago, if an established, successful academic hired by one of the world’s leading universities had told me he regarded writing research articles as tedious, I might have been surprised. But not anymore.

Let’s take a closer look at the concerns academics raise about the constrains of the publishing system.

There is a broad—although rarely spoken—agreement among social science scholars to treat academic articles as an unpleasant job requirement. One of the first things you learn when you enter the academic business is that your colleagues are not particularly fond of the publishing practices of the sector. The state of scientific publishing has been a major disappointment to me. Without authoring research articles, we cannot stay in the field. Publish or perish is the modus operandi for all of us. The only way for a young scholar to get a job is to produce a steady stream of articles in top journals. However, we do so in an increasingly soulless, mechanized manner, in which quantity often triumphs over quality.

The Publishing Crisis

Much has been said about the publishing crisis and especially about the negative role publishing giants have played by allowing the costs of journal subscriptions to balloon. Today, multinational publishing conglomerates have made academic publishing one of the most profitable of businesses. Librarians and researchers rightfully warn about the record costs of access to academic catalogues and the growing power of the few major companies that monopolize the dissemination of research. Even before the emergence of the new tide of e-journals, some critics were already calling for a ban on paywalls, which prevent the general public from freely accessing scholarship. In 2003, Michael Eisen warned that:

many commercial publishers have exploited the effective monopoly they are given on the distribution rights to individual works and charge absurdly high rates for some of their titles, forcing libraries with limited budgets to cancel journal subscriptions and deny their researchers access to potentially critical information. The system is obsolete and broken and needs to change.

Experts have proposed a multiplicity of sophisticated regulatory measures to tackle the problem from a structural perspective. They wish to challenge the neoliberal model of publishing through the establishment of open access journals: a medium that allows researchers to share their work without any costly barriers. They question the practice of evaluating scholarship solely on research performance, and have suggested allowing the public access to the workings of the peer review system.

Undoubtedly, these ideas are important. However, not enough attention has been paid to the fact that the current situation has led to intellectual corruption by affecting the way in which academics write articles. The flaws of the corporate publishing world have been widely debated in the media, while complaints about the work ethos of academics are discussed only privately or at professional conferences—while the game has a quietly deleterious effect on how and what academics write.

We function in a system rigged by corporatized juggernauts, who limit access to knowledge. Universities feed this leviathan by assessing scholars’ work mostly on the basis of their article output. We need more transparent dialogue on how these systemic constraints stifle scholarship. The creative process of research is turning into a McDonaldized assembly line. We academics play an active part in this. And the quality of our work is hurt by it.

Why We Are So Boring

When students complain about the boring nature of the academic articles that populate certain fields, they are often right. Sure, understanding research can be challenging. Not all academics are talented enough to follow Einstein’s advice to be able to explain their work to a bartender. Scientific debates do not have to be captivating to everyone. But often scholars are bored by what they themselves are reading and writing.

Aspiring scholars have to understand the lay of the land and catch up on research in their disciplines. When students leave the well-known waters of the BA/MA curricula and sail to the uncharted territory of independent literature reviews most of us quickly discover that not all the academic work published in leading journals is flawless.

Quid Pro Quo

Some of the scholarship is repetitive. Very repetitive. The same ideas are often recycled by the same authors over and over again, in series of articles that differ only in minute details. Some theories that could have been interesting to the broader public are reused in the service of abstract contexts in which their relevance is—at best—hard to grasp by anyone outside a tiny bubble of experts. In the worst case scenario, they can become an arcane exercise in soliloquy.

Original ideas, important research problems, timely experimental findings and theoretical contributions are often diluted into a runny paste, which can be thinly spread over a few different publications. The purpose of this practice—which a friend calls research splitting—is to allow the author to have as many publications as possible up her academic sleeve.

The Same, But Slightly Different

Authoring your own theories is a prestigious endeavor worthy of the brightest scholars. Unfortunately, in some disciplines, these innovative theoretical contributions often seem conspicuously similar to theories that are already well known. This is unsurprising: they often are almost exactly the same. The only difference lies in the phrasing. Researchers try to produce their own theoretical contributions at any cost—even if this means disregarding established work. This leads to theory cloning and a surge in unnecessary theses.

This creative repackaging helps scholars claim authorship of groundbreaking, horizon-broadening theories—and, above all, it helps them to get published.

Mind the Gap

Another way of claiming originality within the social sciences is to argue that your work addresses a research gap: a question or phenomenon that has not been adequately addressed by scholarship. Sandberg and Alvesson’s work on publishing practices in organization studies suggests that gap filling is one of the most common justifications given by the authors of journal articles. They argue that gap spotting is an easy, safe and uncontroversial measure to secure journal publication—safer and less time-consuming than other types of research.

Sandberg and Alvesson have confirmed what we already knew but rarely discuss outside of the university bubble. Academia is a highly hierarchical accreditation economy. Academics cite one another ad nauseam in order to position themselves within a context of other respected scholars, to illustrate that their research speaks to their peers and to gain credit by association. Gap spotting can be an excellent method of generating original research. However, it often serves merely as a platform to generate “careerist credibility.”

The quality of our publications should not be assessed by whether or not they fill a literature gap. After all, many questions are ignored by academia because they are simply not very interesting. Not every gap needs to be filled. There is no scholarship on the role of fashion in world conflicts, for example. But is there really a need for it?

Mutual Admiration

Scholarship always builds on previous work: all scholars stand on the shoulders of giants. Scholars need to have a deep understanding of their field. Without a knowledge of what is already out there, we cannot know what questions remain unanswered.

But, unfortunately, in some disciplines the process of referring to other scholarly work often takes up more than half the article. Our writing practices sometimes remind me of the proceedings of a mutual admiration society. Every opinion voiced is accompanied by assurances of sympathy with everything all the author’s predecessors have said. This is not how the university agora should function.

The quality of a scholarly work cannot be assessed on the basis of its list of references. The fact that we respect someone else’s work is no reason to respect ours. Truly original research is original not because it fills narrow gaps in the road, but because it shows us that we have been going in the wrong direction. It rarely addresses only a specific epistemic community, but communicates across different groups of researchers. It problematizes peers’ work, rather than amending or simply supporting it. Its applications are broad, and its claims do not fit a narrowly defined research gap. Such work does not fill holes but lays foundations.

Why are we increasingly evaluating work on the basis of the number of cross references to our colleagues and the research gaps filled? Sandberg and Alvesson believe that this is because:

challenging assumptions often means questioning existing power relations in the field, and most scholars are probably unwilling to ‘rock the boat,’ as it may trigger negative feelings and hamper their careers. Dominant actors within the scientific field, such as journal editors and reviewers, are vigilantly guarding their positions from potential challenges.

Ultimately, this system of mutual cross-referencing developed because it provides a reliable way of getting published. And we all have to get published in order to get jobs.

Blessed Ignorance

The quality of good academic work stems from its originality. But in order to write original work academics need time. And time is something we do not have.

One of the myths meticulously guarded by academics is that we are exceptionally knowledgeable. The biggest paradox of the neoliberal model of academia is that—because of the ever growing pressure to publish—academics have little time to think about broader issues that are not directly relevant to their narrow research interests. Good research requires time, space and a system that promotes independent work. However, with the increasing standardization of our work, the importance of rankings and the pressure to be productive, the quality of our work has deteriorated.

Many of us—especially those in precarious employment—do not have time to read. We are working blind, speaking only to the members of our small sub-disciplines and conducting repetitive, automated research, to allow us to publish at any cost. This system cannot survive. A growing number of academics do not have time to gain a broader perspective on their scholarly fields. Neoliberal universities create increasingly hegemonic echo-chambers, where repetition passes for innovation, dissent is muted, and research is measured by its literal weight in paper, not by its intellectual weightiness. The generalist scholar—a thinker engaged with a broad range of topics, who follows subjects outside his epistemic bubble—is a dying breed.

The Work Ethic

The single most surprising thing I have discovered since I started teaching is the faultiness of academia’s work ethic. I am not referring to the pedagogical mission, dedication to research etc. Those qualities—while they are under systematic challenge—are still alive and kicking on campuses across the UK. But many of us have submitted to the tyrannical logic of the industrialized university. Some academics even pride themselves on working around the clock—even over the weekends and during family vacations. Before joining academia, I worked variously as a journalist, business intelligence consultant and PR specialist—I can attest that the academic work ethic is unusual.

We publish so much because universities do not promote any self-regulatory measures limiting research output. And we do not fight to be held to more reasonable expectations because we pride ourselves on our devotion to our work. These attitudes have already made academia into one of the least healthy working environments in the developed world—and promoted catastrophic publishing inflation. More and more journals have appeared to accommodate the growing torrent of submissions. Today, no one has enough time to read what others have published.

How to Outwork a Colleague

This hyper-competitiveness is ultimately a race to the bottom. We compete over who will publish more, in more prestigious journals. Without any external limits, this system leads to researchers trying to outwork their colleagues and it lessens the relevance of our work.

Since your value is assessed on the basis of our research output, the optimal method of survival in academe is to stay in the office longer than your competitors and boost your research profile. This creates a highly unjust system, in which those people who devote most of their private lives to publishing are most likely to be promoted. It discriminates against researchers with children, and against academics involved in social activism and in the promotion of science. It excludes people with passions and hobbies that cannot be quantified by the narrow metrics of the industrial university. It has turned academia into a sport for rich upper-class men.

Standardize, Stupid!

What academia needs is publishing standardization. Universities, academic journals and research associations need to impose limitations on how many articles a researcher can publish yearly. In order to remain relevant, academics need time outside their offices. They need to engage with other people—and not just with journal editors and with their peers at Prestigious Conference on XYZ. We need to start writing less, in order to give each other time to write better and to actually read each other’s work. We need to publish less and stem the tide of articles no one will read.

If we write less, we will publish better work. We will be less inclined to justify our work on the basis of lengthy proclamations of mutual admiration. We will be challenged to write good articles that speak to broader audiences. We will level the playing field for those who do not have as much time or as many resources to work on publication. Often those who publish more do so not because they are better scholars, but because they are more career oriented, more willing to conform to the oppressive requirements of the field. They publish more because they are lucky enough to work at rich, research-intensive institutions. Their voices are heard and their work is discussed because they know the right people in the field. They publish more because they are young and have no family responsibilities—or because they are experienced players of the game.

Since we are losing ground against the publishing conglomerates, let’s change the rules from within by mutually agreeing on work limitations and standards. We need to curtail our own negative instincts for the benefit of everyone. If we want academia to be a safe and fair environment, we need to support publishing speed limits.

Universities that serve society cannot dehumanize their workforces. Universities that promote innovation cannot promote conformity. Universities that spend taxpayer money effectively should not function like sweatshops. In order to speed up, we must first slow down.

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  1. This article highlights many of the issues I’m concerned about in science. Of primary concern is the publishing model, whereby taxpayer-funded research is used to generate massive profits for publishing monopolies. Thanks to a system where academics contribute their work for free, review each others work for free, and buy back their own research at exhorbatant subscription costs, publishing now generates a 50% profit margin. The products of taxpayer-funded research are available to the public for $36 a pop.

    Academics are the biggest suckers of the educated world, tripping over each other to funnel public money and their intellectual property rights to a small handful of private actors. If we decided that we value transparency and open access over subjective notions of “prestige,” science and scientists would be better off. We ought to get rid of the gatekeeping and replace secret reviews by (often anonymous) ideologically-possessed opponents with comment boards under articles.

    I don’t see as much useless “gap-seeking” in my field as I imagine is common in the humanities. Perhaps we would benefit from abolishing public funding for research altogether: if research were in private hands, results would have to become paramount. The SJWs who dominate the humanities would drop like flies, and the remaining would no longer be able to glean intellectual authority through affiliation with an otherwise-productive university.

    As for the workload, I don’t think it is realistic or desirable to impose productivity caps. Unfettered competition should not be handicapped to the benefit of less productive people. Some of the highest-performing researchers I know spend their weekends riding horses or surfing. Some people actually are efficient, and the academy would be lesser for punishing them for it. If you’re spending more than 50 hours a week working, you aren’t being efficient.

    Now, I do think parenthood takes up a huge amount of time, particularly for mothers in the early years. Hiring committee should be aware of that and calibrate their appraisals on productivity accordingly. We should be encouraging our smartest people to have more babies, not less.

  2. This is what’s been inhibiting me from pursuing a PhD. I’m fully aware of the push to create research, which may only be read by a handful of people. Also, I feel that any research ideas I would want to explore would not be popular at a university. In my experience funding for research is only precipitated when the research supports a desired outcome rather than challenges it or explores new avenues. A good example of this is transgender and climate research. Any research that goes against the consensus is labelled as ‘denial’ or ‘bigotry’.

    The author is correct in stating the neoliberal model has created a competitive race to the bottom. Now most universities are about ‘butts on seats’ and collecting tuition fees from people who have no business being in a college. These self-same students would also much rather pursue social justice causes than learn deeply about any subject. And colleges permit this because they’re afraid of any bad publicity which may affect their revenue streams.

    The result of this is that colleges no longer expand their students’ world view, but instead prey on their ‘fear’ that the world is an evil place full of capitalistic oppressors. The message is no longer one of working hard and making a contribution to society, but about tearing down the existing order and replacing it with a socialistic paradise where speech and thought control is enforced and online social media mobs become courts of justice. All of this is allowed to happen because of the cowardice of our institutions (news media, education, politicians) who are too afraid to put a stop to it.

    I do predict a big conservative swing-back soon, though. Everyone I know outside of academia is totally sick of identity politics and social justice activism.

  3. “It discriminates against researchers with children, and against academics involved in social activism and in the promotion of science.

    Hmmm. Who’s missing from this list?

    Oh, yes! It discriminates against academics who teach students. In a classroom.

    Let’s not forget about them.

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