‘Publish or perish’. Everyone seems to agree that this phrase describes how science works today, and no-one much likes it. But what exactly is wrong with it?
As I see it, there’s two issues here – the publishing, and the perishing. They’re separate problems, and only loosely linked.
The perishing is really pretty straightforward. In science today, there are more people at the bottom (PhD students) than there is room at the top (Professorships). At every step up on the career ladder, there are less posts available. So not all of the people entering science will be able to succeed in this career, and some of them will ‘perish’ and end up without a career in science. So there’s competition for jobs and advancement.
Perishing is an inevitable consequence of the demographics. It’s linked to publishing only by accident, as it were; today, scientists happen to be assessed mostly by their publications, so it’s publications that save you from perishing. But you can’t blame publishing – there’s just not enough room for everyone. Some people will drop off the science ladder, until we either stop awarding so many PhDs, or until we create more senior posts. It’s simple arithmetic. So we shouldn’t expect reform of publishing, or alt-metrics, to save people from perishing. These reforms could certainly make the system fairer and better, but the fundamental problem is one of recruitment.
Now as we turn to the publishing, this is not terribly popular either. But what’s wrong with it? Surely, scientists have always had to publish, and surely, they always will?
Well, yes, in a broad sense, to publish simply means to make public, but I’ve never met a scientist who has a problem with that. What many scientists dislike is the process of getting our work into the public domain: writing it up, getting it through peer-review, etc.
I think there are two main reasons for disliking publishing: one, it’s hard work and takes time; two, we feel that the process of turning science into papers actually distorts the science e.g. it encourages only writing up positive results; splitting a coherent series of findings into multiple papers, etc. In other words, scientists resent publications, not publishing. What we don’t like is the need to produce ‘papers’.
So it’s encouraging that people are now talking about the end of the scientific paper, which I think could be a very good thing. However, we shouldn’t put all of our hopes into this. There will still be just as much perishing as before – that’s a separate challenge.