How Publish or Perish in Academia Perpetuates Inequality

28 March 2023
Mira Philips is a Senior Consultant at The Athena Advisors. Her primary responsibilities include conducting prospect research and enhancing clients’ donor stewardship efforts and board performance. She is also a PhD student in Social Welfare at the University of Pennsylvania.

“Publish or perish.” These three words may as well be considered a tagline for doctoral programs. As a current PhD student, who is interested in academia, I am told regularly that I need to have a certain number of publications when I graduate to be competitive on the job market. One day, when I (hopefully) go up for tenure, this number should quadruple if I can expect to have a chance. Tenure, for those who do not know, is essentially job security for academics. Publish or perish, indeed.

So, what do academics require to conduct publishable research? Money. While some occasionally use their salaries to fund their work, this is not always feasible or sustainable, especially when they employ large support teams who also need to be paid. And even if it were feasible, academics should not be expected to pay out of pocket to conduct innovative research for the benefit of the community. The second option is university funding, which while available, is limited. And part of the reason it is limited is because of the third, far more favored option: external funding. The expectation at virtually all R-1 institutions, which are those categorized as having “very high research activity”, is that academics fund most of their research via external money, whether through government funding or foundational grants. External funding is the gold standard.

This article is perhaps a departure from typical conversations on funding in the higher education space, which concern how universities fundraise, who they solicit donations from, and how they spend their money, etc.  But occasionally shielded is that traditional fundraising is not the only way universities make money. They also gain monetary benefits and reputational benefits, when their academics bring in research funding from prestigious sources. As such, securing external funding is part and parcel of many academic careers.

The volume at which you publish tells universities a few things about your value as a researcher and employee:

  • Your research agenda is attractive.
  • You can bring in outside money consistently and not rely on university funds.
  • You have an impact on knowledge generated in your field.
  • You can put yourself, and by extension, your institution on the map.

Of course, the value placed on external funding varies according to your school and your field, but regardless, all academics must contend with the ‘publish or perish’ mentality to varying degrees.

However, there are problems here: stark inequalities in how external research funding is dispersed; enormous pressure and expectations for academics; and professional consequences for those overlooked by the powers-that-be who dole out money. Often funding falls along race, class, and gender lines, meaning that who and what research is funded may represent the most privileged in society. Thus, since academic research informs health, education, employment, environmental, and immigration policy (amongst other things), we are at a disservice if only certain perspectives and experiences are advantaged in the funding process.

In 2011, Ginther et al., published a study which revealed that the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) perpetuated racial inequality through its grantmaking. They found that the NIH was more likely to award grants to research led by white academics than Black or African Americans. Unfortunately, a 2019 follow-up study found that the NIH had made little improvement. The NIH, a government-backed agency, is the holy grail for those pursuing quantitative and health-focused research. Receiving a grant from them can be a huge career boon. Yet, NIH grant applications are notorious for being arduous to complete, requiring immense administrative work, time, and also connections to senior experts who can vouch for your skills as a researcher. Of course, we can immediately see how this is a disadvantage to marginalized academics. Coupled with bias in application assessments, it is unsurprising why the NIH is more likely to fund white academics. This leaves marginalized researchers in a vicious cycle of being left out of the funding space and penalized by their institutions for not being ‘valuable’, only to struggle to be seen as competitive to funders once again.

The NIH is certainly not the only funding body for academic research. Foundations also support a diverse range of work. The question is how their track records on equality look. Are they tackling issues of racial, gender, and class bias in their application process? Additionally, how do universities support researchers in finding external funding and in their overall career development? If universities want academics to be successful, then they have to support them in this process.

I also want to question the obsession with publishing in the first place. Of course, academics want to publish. I, for one, want my research to extend to other academics and the communities I am writing about. What would be the point of my ideas and findings staying with me? However, when we over-privilege publications and tie them to an academic’s worth, we create unfair expectations, ignore the other ways that research can be disseminated, and risk the pursuit of research that is not thoughtful but only exists to satisfy a metric.

If we are to create more equality within research funding, funding bodies need to take stock of every aspect of their process and determine how it privileges some and disadvantages others. And universities need to contend with their over-emphasis on publishing for their own benefit, which comes at the expense of diverse perspectives and robust career development for marginalized academics. Conducting and disseminating research is important, but who gets to do this, why, and how, should not be ignored.