Publish or perish culture may be ‘enemy of impact’

Study casts doubt on efficacy of increasing research productivity in some disciplines

July 10, 2018
Quantity of papers
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Boosting productivity in research through a “play it safe” strategy of continually publishing articles rather than searching for major breakthroughs can damage the overall impact of science, a new study suggests. 

Academics at Arizona State University compared research by more than 350 professors of chemistry and mechanical engineering at 10 US universities to see if there was a noticeable difference in impact when productivity increased.

The disciplines were chosen for their tendency to be towards different ends of the scale in terms of the ability to carve up research into smaller publishable chunks.

According to the paper in the journal Scientometrics, chemistry is a subject where it is “relatively easier” to publish lots of short papers, whereas in mechanical engineering it is “harder to parse research findings” into smaller studies.

The study found, that among the 227 chemistry professors whose work was analysed, there was a noticeable levelling-off in impact in terms of citations when productivity hit a certain point. However, for the 148 mechanical engineering professors, in general, such a trend did not seem to occur, as more research was produced.

The researchers say that the differences in findings between the disciplines could be due to the “higher propensity” for “productivity-focused publication strategies” to be used in chemistry than in mechanical engineering.

However, they caution that much more work needs to be done to properly study the phenomena across other disciplines and control for other factors that may be influencing research impact.

“We need to be very careful not to jump to simplistic conclusions…based on our limited data,” they say, but add that “if our initial finding is correct, that [a] productivity-focused publication strategy is at some level the enemy of impact, then there may indeed be a problem in the social structure and governance of science that threatens scientific and technical progress and thus requires close further scholarly and policy attention”.

They add that most researchers will weigh up the risk for their careers of not publishing more papers against the likelihood of achieving a major breakthrough, “and end up at some point on a continuum between these two archetypes”.

But they warn that “alarm bells should begin to go off” for science if “even the most talented researchers are attracted to, or perceive that they are forced into, a strategy that maximises the likelihood of increased, short-term productivity at the expense of a systemic neglect of the ‘big questions’”.

Sergey Kolesnikov, a postdoctoral researcher at Arizona State’s Center for Organization Research and Design and co-author of the study alongside Barry Bozeman, the centre's director, and PhD student Eriko Fukumoto, said that the drive towards producing more research regardless of its impact could be due to various factors.

These included the “publish or perish” culture often seen in academia or “poorly designed institutional or even national-level research policies that reward scientists for quantity instead of quality”.

“One may argue that such policies are increasingly becoming extinct, as performance-based evaluation systems around the world get more and more sophisticated,” he said.

“But the fact that predatory journals are still going very strong despite all the efforts to combat them indicates that the problem of perverse incentives for researchers to publish as much as they can persists.”

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