Publish & Perish

Yes, you read this title correctly. When it comes to academic careers, the motto “publish OR perish” reigns supreme. What it means exactly, is that if a researcher does not produce a number of solid studies recognized by peers and published by established journals in the area, his/her academic career will likely suffer, and, in time, cease to exist. That is the harsh reality of things.

Karolinska Institute’s doctoral hat, pride and joy of all KI’s PhDs. It doesn’t come cheap in any way 😉

In order to obtain a PhD title at Karolinska Institute, and Sweden in general, one has to publish at least one scientific paper as a first author, with preferably a few more as a co-author, in a span of four years. Which is probably one of the reasons why philosophiae doctors coming from Sweden are so well-respected around the world (many other countries and universities have lower standards and requirements). Plus, “we” have the Nobel Prize, too 😉

Recently, rumors spread that demands for postdocs hence must be higher – i.e. and e.g. two to four papers a year (!). However, none of these requirements are written in stone, or any paper or a binary code sheet, for that matter 😛 It is still rather arbitrary, depending  on the group itself, group leader’s ambitions, research area, project scope, and, of course, resources.

thesis cover
“Don’t judge a book by its cover”… or do exactly that? 😉 The cover of my thesis, which I’m proud of as much as I’m proud of its contents. After all, they inspired me to do the cover itself, and many more interesting projects to come!

But then, why this obsession with publishing, and, even worse, quantity? Well, everyone who spends taxpayers’ money has to justify it somehow. Justify it to the public and to our peers. Justify it for the sake of any kind of “better tomorrow”: either personal or global. This need for justification and recognition is a direct consequence of pressure: either the one we put on ourselves, or the so-called “peer-pressure”. And in academia, everyone experiences it one way or another: after being a PhD student, and now a postdoc, and getting involved in various junior faculty boards (Postdoc Association and Junior Faculty), I am more than aware if its overall presence. It hangs above us like the sword of Damocles.

Unfortunately, the pressure can sometimes kick in the strangest of ways and even lead to scandals. In one of my earlier posts, I mentioned an interesting dinner I had, at a conference on a Greek island, some years back. Apart from the Greek professor I had the “Macedonia” discussion with, at the same table sat a famous Japanese researcher, prof. Shigeaki Kato. At the conference, he presented the latest results of his work on vitamin receptor D, obviously a product of enormous effort and dedication of his big group.

Last year, I decided that I will probably leave the traditional academic career because I love writing and journalism much more, and in my extensive and frequent on-line on-topic surfing, I stumbled upon something called “Retraction Watch”. It is a website/blog that reports on retractions of scientific papers. Actually, the blog’s founder, Ivan Oransky, even visited KI last year, but then I was fixated on other things, and I missed his talk.

Coming to its home page then, I was up for a big surprise: the article entitled “Shigeaki Kato up to 25 retractions”. Researching previous articles, I realized that it wasn’t the first entry about prof. Kato: apparently, he resigned from the University of Tokyo already in 2012 after his group’s publications were found to have inappropriately manipulated dozens of images. It is probable that the changes and manipulations were done by the hands-on researchers (i.e. the junior personnel: PhD students and postdocs), and not prof. Kato himself, and hence escaped his sight. But that doesn’t make things less alarming and somehow sad. We all do things for one reason or another, and one cannot help but wonder: why?

I remember an icy morning this winter, when a colleague came into the office excited, after reading the newest stem cell study published in Nature, about how stimulating blood cells with acid could trigger their regression into pluripotency.

…The paper’s retraction was finalized only a few days ago, after a lot of media attention and public outrage. Again, the reasons were image manipulation, and merging results from two separate, independent experiments.

Only coincidentally, both of these stories happened in Japan, which doesn’t really mean anything. They happen everywhere.

The latest academic scandal hit my home country, after minister of internal affairs’ doctoral thesis was recognized as a nonsensical plagiarism. Even worse, he “defended” the thesis at a shady private university Megatrend, “specialized” mostly in business and management curriculums, whose rector may have also plagiarised his own thesis, allegedly done in the early 1980’s.

Again, why? I said, we all have our reasons. Power, prestige, fear of perish. We all make mistakes, too. Fatigue, confusion, complex data. But in research, the ends do not only justify the means, but the means have to justify the ends, too. The outcome is strictly black-or-white, 1-or-0. There is no “morally grey” area; it is, or it is not. “Do or do not”, as grand master Yoda said.

The probability of me becoming a principal investigator (group leader), based on my gender, family name, publications and their quality, is only 28%, according to a very cool new engine called “PI predictor”, developed by a group in Israel. If I were a man, my chances would be 39%.

We have had some amazing discoveries in the past decades, and they have entirely changed the dynamics of scientific research. Some older researchers even claim that they wouldn’t have survived the today’s pressure and rules of the game.

Honestly, I’m not sure I will either. On Monday June 16th, a few colleagues and myself  are organizing an afterwork seminar “Careers outside academia”, on behalf of KI’s Postdoc Association, Junior Faculty and Doctoral Student Association. Let’s hope it will give us a brighter view of tomorrow’s science!

To be continued…


5 thoughts on “Publish & Perish

  1. Thank you for a great text! I’ve just discovered the “PI predictor”. It is fascinting that the chances of becoming a PI are higher for a man than for a woman even if the publication list is the same!

  2. Cool blog 🙂 Just saw it today. “Publish and Perish”, “Publish or Perish” … seems like you will perish in the academia regardless of what you do 😛

    1. Well hello Yuan 🙂 I don’t want to draw too many conclusions; but this publication (!) speaks volumes:
      Ela, I tried to play around with more “normal” and common surnames (i.e. typical English), but the engine recognizes them as an error, since those names are not on my papers. Which of course makes sense, but it would be cool to see how someone with the same record as mine, but a different, more usual name, would rank 😉

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