akademiskcoaching.se | Reflections on the ‘publish or perish’ ideology. Peer-reviewed articles: how, where, when, why?
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Reflections on the ‘publish or perish’ ideology. Peer-reviewed articles: how, where, when, why?

I did my PhD on Hannah Arendt. A short time after my promotion, a friend told me that a journal which will now not be named was preparing an issue on Arendt. It was far from one of the top journals. I wrote up an article and submitted it.

It took eight months before I received a letter basically saying ‘sorry, but what you wrote up is too specialized and don’t take it personally’. There was an ‘evaluation’ of one referee, who finished proving his or her ignorance by rhetorically asking “who cares?”

That was it. There was no doubt in my mind that the article had virtue. It dealt with the central problem of Arendt’s work. The analysis I had provided was correct. I decided to send to the article to Acta Politica. At that time, Acta Politica was arguably the top 1 journal in political science in Europe. It is still one of the very best.

After one month, I received a fax (those were the days): the referees considered my article interesting and worthy of publication. They demanded some changes (evaluations would arrive by post). Three months later the article was published.

This episode (and many others) taught me some lessons.

There is a lot of advice around about how to write, how to structure an article, how to compose an abstract, which journal to choose, how to properly reference, etc. A lot of it is excellent. The problem is that it is not because you read and understand something that you can also do it. Writing is a learning process. It takes time and effort. No one is born a good writer. At Akademisk Coaching, we often meet students who have become stuck. Often enough, there is no clear plan to begin with, so students go off in several directions. It then becomes impossible to knit everything logically together. A lot of work and effort is being wasted. If you find yourself in this situation, come talk to us. We can help you.  

Writing up articles and research proposals lead to other types of problems. Don’t despair and don’t get (too) frustrated if a journal rejects your article. I started to approach this as if I was a chess player. Professional chess players – even the very best – lose games. The next day they play another game. There is no time to get frustrated, disappointed or depressed. The only thing they – and we all – can do is to sit at the board, calmly and with full concentration, and play the best moves.

You will learn through experience that some reviewers take their work seriously and are competent and well-meaning people who try to raise the bar of your work. These are the people that you should cherish, even (or especially) if you do not like what they tell you.

There are also less serious, less competent and less well-meaning reviewers and there are ideological factors and groupthink. Whatever it is, it is essential that your self-esteem and your belief in your own capacities does not depend on them. Never take it personally. Accidents happen all the time. The most extreme example in the history of science is a paper on the nature of light that Einstein wrote up in 1904. The editor sent Einstein a letter back informing him that, as far as he could see, a journal of art theory should be more appropriate for Einstein’s poetic musings. There are thousands, admittedly less extreme, examples like this.

Your career and your publishing record. The ‘publish or perish’ ideology

There is a lot of advice on the net on this too and an underlying – and grossly unexamined – assumption of many commentators is that the more you publish the better. This is the ‘publish or perish’ ideology. Don’t believe it.

A long list of middle-of-the-road mainstream science publications is boring and generates little interest and respect. A concise list of excellent articles that make a real contribution to your discipline always impresses and makes a difference: it shows that you are genuinely promising. Even non-published papers and work in progress generates interest, on the condition that it is interesting.  

The trouble is that there are a lot of people around who have nothing fundamental, novel or really interesting to say (see below). Higher education has become so commodified that middle-of-the-road people are often preferred to promising scientists. The reasons for this are simple: they won’t rock any boats and if they have the ability to bring in external funding, there won’t even be a discussion. People who are interested in fundamental work are often considered dangerous. If you try to push the limits of your field, work out something new, you may very well fail. That is how science works or, at least, how it should work. No one can promise a breakthrough years in advance. People who are able to attract funding, especially international funding (H2020 for example) are safe and university administrators love them.

You need to decide for yourself how you approach this. My advice would be to not focus on publishing the one article after the other. Your focus should be to do relevant work and try to excel. Here is what James C. Scott, professor emeritus at Yale and the world’s most read political scientist, said about it:

(H)ow important is it to publish articles? A colleague of mine reported how many people actually read academic articles—and the number on average was less than three. So the majority of article publishing is essentially a vast anti-politics machinery put together to help people get tenure (…).

Professional advancement depends increasingly on a kind of audit system for number of peer-reviewed articles et cetera, a kind of mechanical system (…), an effort to avoid making qualitative judgments about how good something is. It is something particularly common to democracies, where you have to convince people you are objective, you’re not playing favors, there are no qualitative judgments, and it’s just comparing the numbers. So, if you are producing an article, and it’s going to be read by three people, then why are you doing this in the first place? You should find another line of work, where you have a little impact on the world. If you’re doing it to please the discipline looking over your shoulder, it’s going to be alienated labor, and I fully grant it is more difficult to make your way if you want to do it otherwise. (…) I am conscious of the fact that life was easier for me than it is for students today. But on the other hand (…) you might as well be doing something exciting even if it’s harder to sell” (see here – my emphasis).

Punishing creativity. Radical proposals

Last year, Heckman and Moktan produced a paper dealing with the power of the T5 in American universities (see here). The T5 are the Top Five journals in economics. If it is your ambition to enter the academia as an economist, you better publish in (at least) one of the T5. T5 publications greatly increase the probability of receiving tenure. Publishing three T5 articles is associated with a 370% increase in the rate of receiving tenure, compared to candidates with similar levels of publications in non-T5 journals. Candidates with one or two T5 publications experience increases in the rate of tenure of 90% and 260%, respectively (see here).

So you know what to do now. But what about the quality of these articles?

As Heckman and Moktan show, the T5 does not publish the best or the most impactful papers. While T5 is the standard, the academics who impose the standard do not follow it themselves. They primarily publish in, read, and cite non-T5 journals. Candidates who survive the T5 filter and become tenured faculty do the same. Many non-T5 articles outperform T5 articles and several non-T5 journals produce more top 1% articles than the ‘Top’ 5 (citation analysis figures can be found in the article) (see here).

Heckman and Moktan conclude:

Relying on rankings rather than reading to promote and reward young economists subverts the essential process of assessing and rewarding original research. Using the T5 to screen the next generation of economists incentivizes professional incest and creates clientele effects whereby career-oriented authors appeal to the tastes of editors and biases of journals. It diverts their attention away from basic research toward blatant strategizing about lines of research and favored topics of journal editors with long tenures. It raises entry costs for new ideas and persons outside the orbits of the journals and their editors. An over-emphasis on T5 publications perversely incentivizes scholars to pursue follow-up and replication work at the expense of creative pioneering research (…)” (see here).

Heckman and Moktan also provide recommendations. The T5 are a gatekeeper. If you intend to write up heterodox economics papers, you can forget it. The T5 almost amounts to a berufsverbot for anyone who is trying to work ‘outside the box,’ the straitjacket of neoclassical economics.   

A fundamental solution, Heckman and Moktan write, “will need to address the flaw that is inherent in the practice of judging a scholar’s potential for innovative work based on a track record of publications in a handful of select journals.” They recommend a system that emphasises  departmental peer-review of a candidate’s work: give serious consideration to unpublished work and read publish and unpublished papers so that departments can choose scholars working at the frontiers of the discipline (see here).  

I feel much more for their more realistic and more radical proposal: shifting publication away from the current fixed format journals towards open source publications. As they write:

Such formats facilitate the dissemination rate of new ideas and provide online real-time peer review for them. Discussion sessions would vet criticisms and provide both authors and their readers with different perspectives. More focused papers would stimulate dialogue and break editorial and journal monopolies” (see here).  

The ideology of the disinterest expert reviewer who reviews your work in the spirit of academic generosity (and there many such well-meaning people) is a part of the ideology of publish or perish. You likely went through more than twenty years of education. As a doctor, you are now considered an expert in your field. Still, it is taken for granted that you need peer-review before your work can be published.

The educated underclass

We study because we find it interesting and because we assume that getting a degree will make our lives more rewarding, more comfortable, we will make more money, have more chances in life, in short we expect education to lead to a better life.

That link has become increasingly dubious, as Gary Roth writes in The Educated Underclass. Students and the Promise of Social Mobility. We live in a world with too many graduates fighting for too few jobs, Roth writes. Today, FedEx drivers have advanced degrees. Roth explains that the equation of postsecondary education with upward mobility has been out of date for a half century already. It was based on the rapid expansion of the economy following World War II. Since the 1990s, however, a very different, and much more complicated, situation has prevailed. Roth writes:

 “While college enrollments increased by more than 40 percent between then and now, a third of those graduates wound up in jobs that do not require a college education. For recent graduates of four-year institutions, the figure is over 40 percent. If a college degree is still a means of social uplift, it is because a substantial portion of graduates compete in the employment markets against nongraduates” (see here).

This is even true for fields that are in great demand, Roth writes: even in the STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) un- and underemployment rates hover around 30 percent. In political science, un- and underemployment stands at 66 percent or more.

Community colleges do still worse:

“The two-year community colleges have as their central mission job preparation. Yet, half of all 25- to 34-year-olds with a two-year associate degree earn $38,000 or less for full-time, year-round employment, not sufficiently better than the recognized minimum “living” wage of $31,200 ($15 per hour for a 40-hour week) deemed as necessary for “independent” living” (see here).

What would the solution be?

(H)igher education can only accomplish what society in general is ready for. What takes place in higher education is symptomatic of processes at work in society at large. When graduates of four-year institutions face chronic underemployment, the graduates of two-year institutions encounter careers pegged at the low end of the compensation scale and society at large contends with other major and seemingly intractable problems – such as stagnating wages, a sluggish economy, an avaricious elite, a gridlocked political system, heightened warmongering globally and a physical world that is visibly disintegrating before our eyes – only large-scale society-wide solutions are possible” (see here).  

Conservatives against science

Walsh just published a literature review on the impact of conservative ‘philanthropy’ in higher education (see here). For more than half a century, factions within the conservative movement have sought to promote free-market and free-enterprise principles through ‘philanthropy’ directed to college campuses. This is of course not a secret. Walsh’s study (see here for the PDF) provides many examples. Let me share one or two.

The Chicago school of economics, the bulwark of neoclassical economics, has been funded since 1935 by Charles Walgreen, the owner of a national drugstore chain, who donated over half a million dollars to the University of Chicago in 1937. Between 1958 and 1980, the Walgreen Foundation awarded over 100 fellowship grants, aggressively promoting research from an anti-statist perspective (see here).

As of 2015, the Koch family foundations had spent nearly $150 million funding academic programs at no less than 307 different institutions of higher education – with $50 million dedicated to a single flagship campus in the Koch system: George Mason University creating a dense network of conservative scribblers, administrators, activists and students. The Kochs fund right-wing students that support free-market ideology through fellowships and scholarships on the one hand and the endowment of professorships and the creation of right-wing think-tanks and research centers on the other to provide those students with jobs later in their careers. The Kochs also fund climate change deniers.  

I do not want to go on about this. The same happens closer to home, as, for example and among others, Avner Offer and Gabriel Soderberg explain in The Nobel Factor. The prize in economics, social democracy, and the market turn. Live in the ghostly world of rational actors and markets. Write up a book, nothing more than pop science really, stuffed with anecdotes meant to prove what everyone knows already (people are not rational actors) and the Prize can be yours. Or write up some studies that are so irrelevant that even the IPCC ignores them. Prove, black on white, that ‘the social cost of carbon’ is too high (compared to a livable planet) and that mitigation of climate change can wait another 40 or so years – we will all be richer by then and have more adequate technology. The Prize can also be yours.  

Are you sure this what you want to do?

It was not my intention to discourage anyone. On the contrary. If you think you have it in you, go ahead, delve deep, do not settle for mediocrity, excel, be of relevance for the world.

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