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The Politics of "Publish or Perish"

by  Bert Thompson, Ph.D.
Brad Harrub, Ph.D.

There is an unwritten statute within the halls of academia—in order to obtain tenure and receive full professorship, one must obtain grants and publish papers. However, the truth is that most grants come as the result of published papers. Grants often are awarded on the basis of work the investigator has carried out in the field. [In applying for grants, many researchers find themselves carrying out many of the experiments they are proposing, long before they are ever awarded any funding. This allows them to publish papers in the field in which they are submitting the grant, and thereby increases their chances of being funded.] Thus, the old adage of “publish or perish” holds more truth than many are willing to admit. If researchers do not publish papers, they are less likely to receive grants, and as a result, less likely to receive tenure.

But nowadays, even publishing is not enough. Researchers are expected to publish in the most prestigious journals possible. Questions often arise in interviews of potential faculty members as to how many Science, Nature, or Cell papers they have had published. Top journals hold a higher “impact factor” when new faculty positions are involved. As a result, scientists go to great lengths to get their research papers into these scientific journals, and others like them. After all, careers can be made or lost as a result of manuscript submissions. But, like any system of political power, the tortuous journey of getting an article published in leading journals is not immune to abuse and controversy. This, in fact, was the very point of a stinging commentary titled “The Politics of Publication” written by Peter A. Lawrence in the March 20, 2003 issue of Nature (422:259-261).

Aside from authoring and reviewing numerous scientific papers during his career, Lawrence has edited the journal Development since 1976, and has served on the editorial board of Cell and EMBO Journal. He is well qualified to speak on the problems of the current system—and he does not waste any time pointing out significant pitfalls. He correctly noted that “[e]valuations of scientists depend on numbers of papers, positions in lists of authors, and journals’ impact factors” (p. 259). In fact, many institutions have developed formulas based on these factors, which then are used to assess potential personnel. It sometimes seem that no one really cares what kind of work you do; rather, your “worth” is based on whether your curriculum vita is filled with current publications from significant professional journals.

But, as Lawrence accurately pointed out, there are consequences to this system. For instance, authors have to decide when and how to publish their work. Lawrence commented:

The ideal time is when a piece of research is finished and can carry a convincing message, but in reality it is often submitted at the earliest possible moment (two papers count for twice as much as one, never mind if the second paper mainly corrects errors in the first). Findings are sliced as thin as salami and submitted to different journals to produce more papers. Work must be rushed out to minimize the danger of being scooped—top journals will not consider a paper if a similar result has appeared in a competing journal, even if the experiments have taken years and there is only a week or two of disparity (pp. 259-260, parenthetical comment in orig., emp. added)

But one of the greatest tragedies is that, frequently, the actual content of papers gets lost, and real results never leave the laboratory. The individuals who actually carry out the work—the graduate students and post-docs—often hand the results off to the major professor who then writes up the work, never having participated in any of the actual experimentation. It is simply the numbers of papers with which most administrations are concerned. As such, principle investigators find themselves locked away in offices, constantly writing grants and “sprucing up” papers in ways to make them more likely to be accepted. In evaluating the questions that authors may face, Lawrence asked:

Can results be hyped to make them look more topical? Are there some trendy stock phrases that can be used? Would oversimplification add to the appeal? Could a lofty take-home message be made to fit? Can even a tenuous link to a human disease be found? (Mention of a human disease boosts the number of subsequent references to the paper and can make it more attractive to a journal.) [p. 260, parenthetical comment in orig., emp. added].

So now we have researchers including in papers references to diseases that may (or may not) have anything to do with those particular diseases! While this may seem disgusting, or even dishonest, it is the only system currently in place.

Researchers are not the only ones who suffer from the current system. Editors of the journals also are on the receiving end of a great deal of grief. As a result of the need to publish in prestigious journals, the number of submissions has increased dramatically. Lawrence observed: “For example, Nature now receives around 9,000 manuscripts a year (double that of 10 years ago) and has to reject about 95% of biomedical papers” (p. 260, parenthetical comment in orig.). He went on to point out one of the obvious downfalls that has resulted from this increase in submissions:

In leading journals there are too many submissions to send most out for peer review, so the editor’s decision has become, quantitatively, much more important than the judgement of reviewers. Consequently, editors are courted by authors who resort to tactics such as charm offensives during “presubmission enquiries,” networking at conferences and wheedling telephone calls—or pulling rank, using contacts, threatening and bullying (p. 260, emp. added).

Sadly, this is the current state for most major branches of scientific research. It’s “publish—or perish.” And because of that, experiments are hyped, results are tweaked, data are massaged, and publishers are given papers that the authors believe will be accepted. Researchers no longer carry out experiments, collect data, and then simply report on the data. They allow students and post-docs to carryout the work, while they work feverishly behind a computer to figure out how to make the next paper more appealing. In today’s world it’s all about “presentation.” As such, vast speculations are made as to how this particular finding might cure Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s. Papers must conform to the current dogma, and papers must not contradict work carried out by certain political players.

Consider then, the dilemma in which researchers find themselves when their research does not support evolutionary theory. If they write the paper and submit the data “as is,” they realize that it will not be published because it goes against the current political (materialistic) agenda. While scientists like to fancy themselves as clear-thinking, unbiased, strictly objective scholars who observe and measure natural processes as they actually occur, reality tells an entirely different story. Rather than careful testing and replication of experimental data—without regard to personal beliefs—researchers sometimes are more interested in receiving approval from the reviewers so they can add one more publication to their curriculum vita. They are well aware that if the word “creation” or “intelligent design” is mentioned, the paper automatically is red flagged (also calling into question any future papers that might be submitted), and ultimately it will end up being rejected. As a result, many research projects that have absolutely nothing to do with evolutionary theory often toss in an evolutionary reference, simply to appear “politically correct.”

Peter Lawrence stated that his main purpose in writing about the current state of scientific publication was “consciousness raising.” Wouldn’t it be nice if authors, editors, and reviewers also will raise their consciousness regarding research that supports the concept of creation? It is high time that journals allow the data to be reported “as is,” without political bias. In light of the current “publish or perish” environment, does anyone really expect to see creationists’ papers submitted to professional journals within the mainstream scientific community, knowing that, in the end, those papers will never be accepted? Let’s hope that increased awareness will help rectify some of the problems within the current system, so that truthful science can be reported.


Lawrence, Peter A. (2003), “The Politics of Publication,” Nature, 422:259-261, March 20.

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