Publish or Perish – academia and self-publishing

“He published frantically while he was a post-doc and junior faculty…”
From Initial Conditions

Fast Solar Wind Causes Aurora Light ShowsWhen Danielle, the protagonist of Initial Conditions, wants to work on the recently-discovered dark energy, her new boss dissuades her, noting that “in a post-doctorate, you focus on obtaining publishable results, not plunging unprepared into a new field.” Such a reply sounds dismissing but is hardly surprising – in academia, scientist’s work is often evaluated by the amount of the published papers s/he generates. With the exception for rare, groundbreaking discoveries, even a very good scientist is unlikely to succeed without publishing regularly in high-impact scholarly journals.

Today I read on The Passive Voice about a recent study that analyzed millions of biomedical abstracts. The authors found that:

“researchers who confine their work to answering established questions are more likely to have the results published, which is a key to career advancement in academia. Conversely, researchers who ask more original questions and seek to forge new links in the web of knowledge are more likely to stumble on the road to publication, which can make them appear unproductive to their colleagues.”

So, publishing often and avoiding risk-taking usually pays off in academia. Apparently, this also works in self-publishing. According to best-selling author Russell Blake:

“…the secret was to put out a new volume every sixty days so your name appears on the hot new releases list with regularity and momentum is built with readers, and never forget that you’re there to entertain your readership – not to get too clever, or if you’re bored, change things up for your amusement. It’s a job. Do the work, do it well, and maybe you get paid for a while. That’s the secret.
I’ve given that advice to plenty of authors: pick a genre that can support your aspirations, write to reasonable quality for the genre’s expectations and publish with astonishing regularity, put forth a pro package, and pay attention to what’s working.”

I can only speculate on why this mentality of publishing what is merely good enough prevails in milieus as different as establishment-sponsored academia and indie writers. In a market with millions of books, visibility and discoverability are major problems. Big publishers invest a lot of money to push the few books they expect to become best-sellers; self-publishers lack the means to adequately push their work. According to Blake, constant production of acceptable (by readers) content is the key to how self-publishers can bypass this hurdle. First, by constantly releasing new material, they keep their books in readers’ mind. Second, and at least as important as first, is that retailer’s algorithms place “hot new releases” in front of potential buyers’ eyes. This enhanced visibility is golden as it increases the book’s chances to be bought. And when this is repeated every month or two or three, the author might be paid enough to live from his/her writing.

Universities, on the other hand, do not pay researchers by the number of papers they publish every year, and hopefully, automated algorithms have no say in who will climb the rungs of academic career. So, different arguments should explain why scientists publish often, even when they have nothing exciting to report about. According to the cited research, “evidence points to a simple explanation: Innovative research is a gamble whose payoff, on average, does not justify the risk. It’s not a reliable way to accumulate scientific reward.”

This conclusion is not new, but nevertheless, it makes me wonder why efficient productivity is better rewarded than creativity. Why dedicated, talented people are encouraged to produce more of the same even in fields where making a profit is not on the agenda, and where decisions are made not by mindless algorithms but by highly educated people sitting in respected committees?

Image from Johnny Henriksen/ via

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3 Responses to Publish or Perish – academia and self-publishing

  1. howardat58 says:

    Stupid, isn’t it, and most of the stuff never gets read, let alone cited.


  2. Joseph Nebus says:

    But there is a useful truth about people. In some ways it’s better to be known for a string of successes (publications, in these lights) rather than a handful of great achievements. There is something trustworthy in a person who demonstrably gets stuff done.

    The flip side is being someone who does something so great that, success or failure, it’s awe-inspiring, but you need serious ambition to try that. And to be in a field where it doesn’t really matter whether you succeed or fail as long as the scope of it is mind-boggling.


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