Publish or Perish

Prof. Amod Gupta
Published Online: April 1st, 2021 | Read Time: 17 minutes, 36 seconds

The catch phrase ‘Publish or perish’ among the scientific community to mean ‘either publish your research or lose your job’ is a constant threat that hangs like a Damocles’ sword on their heads. ‘Publish or perish’ also signifies the reality and pressures for progress of science in the world of academia that is becoming hugely competitive. In an increasingly connected and globalized world, nobody, located in how so ever remote an institution, can claim to be untouched by this menace.

Why do science?

Science is altruistic, it is selfless without any motive except gaining recognition for the person doing it or the institution or the lab where the science is being done. There are no immediate personal financial gains for the scientists except that recognition in the peer group nationally and internationally is an award itself. It also facilitates easier acceptance of future grants for the individual scientists and the institutions from various funding agencies.

What is science?

Science is a process or a discipline to understand and explain the physical phenomenon in the real world. It is trying to unravel the mysteries of what is happening around us, how and why of the phenomenon and propounding theories or hypothesis of what it may mean. Science by and large is observational e.g. an ecologist looking at the behaviour of birds and animals with changing environment or incursion of the mankind into their natural habitat, or an astrophysicist looking at distant galaxies. Science may also be experimental wherein a chemist, a physicist or a biologist conducts experiments in the controlled environment of their laboratories. Social sciences on the other hand study the human behaviour and interactions in the society. Whether observational or experimental, science essentially involves data gathering and putting it together in a systematic understandable and communicable format.

Why publish?

Science is not constant. Scientists constantly challenge the old views and make new observations. Humans are not infallible and scientists are human too and at times given to false or exaggerated claims. While scientists frequently interact with each other, have brain storming sessions and informally or formally discuss the implications of their research ideas and observations, a need for documentation was felt almost 450 years ago in the year 1660 to be precise when the proceedings of the Royal society in Britain were first recorded. This was a means of according priority and claims of ‘me first’ for generating new knowledge by the scientists who propounded them first. This also marked the beginning of the modern scientific era.

Scientists need to communicate their observations to the peer group where if true, these must find resonance. It means that other independent observers must test, retest and validate the observations of individual scientists. Once accepted by the peer group, these need to get published in science journals in public domain for wider dissemination of the newly minted knowledge. Any knowledge that remains confined to an individual or generated in isolation and not communicated to the world at large is not recognised and dies with the person. Even when the observations are presented as free papers or posters in conferences and technical meetings or communicated in house journals or newspapers are not considered of any value. The person or the group of people who were involved in carrying out the research are recognised as authors and creators of new knowledge only when they pass the touchstone of their peer group and publish in refereed journals. This published work then remains open to criticism and duplication for all times to come. This knowledge remains relevant and acceptable till it is challenged by other set of observations and a new knowledge is then generated. Science is thus ever evolving and the cycle goes on. Science is not meant to provide the final answers but generate new ideas and streams of thoughts and hypothesis. Half-life of poorly conducted science is very short and up to one-third of the published papers may be still born i.e. these may manage to get published but remain largely ignored by the scientific community at large and never get cited. It is often observed that the truly path breaking research becomes increasingly relevant with passage of time and many of the Nobel award winners get their recognition years and decades after their work was first published.

Is peer review publication process fool-proof?

Peer review means an evaluation of the submitted manuscript for its authenticity and plausibility by scientists who are well-known researchers in the same field. By and large, this system works very well. However, many times the prospective authors have a niggling doubt about the bias of editors which cannot be removed. Many times the authors may be so far ahead of their times and peers that nobody is able to judge the value of their contributions. The polymerase chain reaction by Mulis published in 1987, which revolutionized the world of science forever, is a telling example (Mullis, KB, Faloona, FA (1987) Specific synthesis of DNA in vitro via a polymerase catalyzed chain reaction, Methods in Enzymology, 155, 335-350). Kary Mulis was very sure that it would get published in Nature. Not only Nature even the Science rejected it. Almost 50 years before that Nature had the dubious distinction of rejecting the famed Krebs’ cycle by Hans Krebs (1937). Indeed so often it is said that history of science can be written by looking at the list of rejected papers by the most famous and prestigious journals. Some consolation that!

Academic institutes and the ranking

Since times immemorial, universities and academic institutions have remained the cradle of new knowledge. Scientific papers published in peer-reviewed and refereed journals have always been the hallmark of excellence of research by the individuals and the institutions or the labs where it is carried out. Institutions and universities vie with each other to be counted among the top 10 or top 100 in their own country, region or even the world in a number of yearly surveys that are carried out by popular magazines such as the “Times”. They would also take pride in the number of Nobel laureates on their faculty and the new path-breaking discoveries that they list on their sites to attract the best talent available anywhere in the world. It ultimately boils down to the prestige or esteem of the individual scientists and the institutions.

In the present times, most of the research needed to generate new information and knowledge requires funding most of which is granted by the government agencies. What with the growing and competing needs of the society, there is a worldwide financial crunch for the limited funds available with the governments. Scientists and the institutions then have to compete with each other for ever trying to get the best among them to their fold to be able to get their pie of research grants. There is no place for the week-kneed or less than the brightest in these institutions.

‘Publish or perish’ promotes fraudulent research

The pressure of ‘Publish or perish’ and ‘urge to get ahead of the competition’ have led to serious incidents of research misconduct that have been increasingly noticed since the early eighties. This may include intentional falsification or fabrication of data, misrepresentation of data, duplicate publications and plagiarism i.e. passing off somebody else’s ideas or papers as their own.

British Medical Journal reported in 2012 that Fujii an associate professor in the department of anaesthesiology at Toho University, Japan faked 172 research papers between 1993 and 2011.He, perhaps, holds a world record for retracted papers closely followed by a German anaesthesiologist’s record of 89 faked papers. More recently, in August 2014, Dr Yoshiki Sasai committed suicide when Stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency(also known asSTAP) published by her student Haruko Obokata in January 2014 in Nature was found to be fraudulent.

Research is a commitment

Research is a fulltime commitment and it must result in credible publications or papers. Research is neither a job nor a service or a laid back vocation. Academic institutions expect a person joining them to demonstrate capability of carrying out independent research that will enhance the prestige of the institution by way of publications in prestigious journals. While there are a number of metrics to judge the quality and longevity of research, none being the most objective and perfect, the most common and the simplest criteria laid down by the academic institutions for the purpose of recruitment and promotions is thus the number of published papers. This practice is not restricted to the best of the institutions of the world but any that lays a claim to being academic.

Research is for the curious mind

Why do people join science/research stream? Because of the natural joy, excitement, and thrill of discovering something that is as yet unknown or to be able to change the long-held beliefs. While many are drawn to research by their passion, it is a common observation that not always the most curious minds find their way into science streams at the graduate or even the doctoral levels. It is these professors and scientists who face the challenge ‘publish or perish’ at the hands of the administrators. In my experience, the real passionate researchers do not feel this pressure and are also the most prolific contributors to the existing knowledge. Essentially what you need is a curious and committed mind. It is the people who found their way into research by chance and not driven by curiosity who feel lost and frustrated.

Medical sciences are the most vulnerable

Medical sciences contribute the maximum number of published papers every year compared to the pure sciences most of it in low impact journals. Most of the not-for-profit medical establishments are academic institutes that claim to provide high-quality patient care, training and research. Most of these institutes showcase their research to earn prestige for attracting patients to their portals. Publishing papers thus becomes mandatory for their faculty members as a means of survival. Non-performers are shown the door. Public funded academic institutes are the worst sufferers as the administrators are not clear of the work standards and what is expected of their faculty. Some of the brightest surgeons and physicians in the faculty in our national medical institutes have not been promoted because they failed to do research and publish papers while at the same time they spent up to 12-14 hours a day in providing patient care. Denying promotions on the basis of ‘publish or perish’ policy is highly demotivating for clinicians. Especially so when they cannot be sacked from their jobs. Our medical institutes are getting burdened with an increasing number of these frustrated clinicians who are generating a new breed of negatively charged faculty hell bent upon bringing down the prestige of the institutes just because they are not research oriented or do not have time to do research. One of the possible solutions is to do a thorough aptitude testing while hiring the medical faculty and not merely look at the number of published papers. One of the views is that highly skilled surgeons and physicians should be spared this ‘publish or perish’ menace and the burden of publishing be left to full time researchers who are engaged for this purpose alone. Some of the medical institutes in United States have clinical professors on their faculty to earn money for their institute and support research faculty and staff whose primary job is to carry out research and publish papers.

Choose what you wish to be

It is often said that you cannot be a good clinician if you do not possess a curious mind that is capable of raising questions. You need the sharp observation skills of the fictional Sherlock Homes to solve the mysteries ofmedicine. Without publishing credible research of your own, you would remain one of the million physicians who are all the time looking up to the western researchers to find solutions to your indigenous problems. It is also true that if you do not publish refereed papers you do not even know what you are doing is right or acceptable to your peer group. If as a surgeon you are incapable or disinclined to compile the results and outcomes of your surgical procedures and innovations, you would not be able to even counsel the patient. The world is shrinking. The internet is all pervasive. Patients search on the net looking out for the experts. The only way in the future to attract patients to your institutions or your clinics would be to establish yourself as an expert. How do you become an expert without publishing credible research? A day may come sooner than later that you have neither the papers, nor the students or the patients to look up to you.

Prof. Amod Gupta
Emeritus Professor, Post Graduate Institute of Medical Education and Research, Chandigarh
Prof Amod Gupta graduated from medical school in 1973 and received his MS in ophthalmology in 1976. He has held prestigious posts as the Dean of medical faculty, head of the department of ophthalmology, professor of ophthalmology at the Post Graduate Institute of Medical Education and Research (PGIMER), Chandigarh. He has raised the advanced eye centre at PGIMER in 2006 which is now one of the most advanced eye care centres in India. He was the founder President of the Uveitis society of India and ex-President of the Vitreoretinal society of India. Professor Amod Gupta has won many accolades including the prestigious Padma Shri award by the President of India in 2014. He was recognized among the Unsung Heroes of Ophthalmology in 2020 by the American Academy of Ophthalmology. Professor Amod Guptas contribution to research and innovation in ophthalmology is infinite and is one of the most cited ophthalmologists from India. He has mentored and taught many in the field of ophthalmology during his illustrious career spanning over four decades.
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