How Publish or Perish in Academia Perpetuates Inequality
“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.
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.
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.