Researchers Under Pressure

Peter Higgs is one of the scientists responsible for the discovery of the Higgs boson particle, and his work has changed our understanding of particle physics. However, in a conversation about the current climate in academia, he said, “Today I wouldn’t get an academic job. It’s as simple as that,” based on his lack of productivity.

Pressure on researchers to publish has been a long-standing theme in the scholarly world, with the phrase “publish or perish” used in an academic context as early as the 1940s. The International Association of Scientific, Technical and Medical Publishers reports that researchers’ motivations for publishing are dissemination of knowledge first, but career advancement and future funding take a close second place. In the face of such pressure, some researchers resort to less-than-scholarly strategies to increase their publibusiness woman under pressurecation numbers. Duplicate submission of already-published works or self-plagiarism is one tactic and results in a distortion of the apparent frequency of that data in the literature. Another method used to increase publication numbers is multiple authorship. By including as many authors on a paper as possible, a researcher can increase his or her coauthor numbers and know that they will do the same for him or her. While this practice is mutually beneficial for publication count, it does not correlate with an increase in new research. Another practice is known as salami slicing. By focusing on the “least publishable unit,” researchers dilute the integrity of the research and the literature by fragmenting data and publishing pieces in multiple papers. This practice affects the number of citations the fragmented articles receive and thus the impact factors of the journals publishing the papers.

Some institutions are combating such practices by limiting the number of papers each researcher is allowed to publish each year. Methods such as this that reward quality over quantity encourage useful and substantive research. Researchers can also play a role by taking responsibility for their publications. Taking steps to shift the priorities in research and publishing will help center the focus squarely on the science and its benefit to patients, students, researchers, and the community at large.