By: Kevin Kester, Endicott College of International Studies, Daejeon, Korea
Publish or perish remains a popular maxim in higher education circles. Although it may ring of neoliberal institutional straight-jacketing or self-imposed bio-governance – and there is resistance against it by a number of academic groups – the experience for many scholars is that the mantra still holds true. It seems as though one must publish often in high-impact journals or expect to be relegated to a second-class citizen of the academy. The challenge is to face this situation without succumbing to the pressure. My task then in this short two-part blog post is to offer some tips from my personal experience as an early-career academic and recent graduate of the Faculty of Education in Cambridge on how to publish often and publish well.
I begin with what ‘counts‘ in research. The notion of ‘counting’ research is of course contested. There are many different systems for evaluating the impact of one’s research, and scholars disagree on how and whether such an attempt should be undertaken. What is generally considered of importance, however, for both faculty evaluations and contributions to knowledge, is the production of peer-reviewed journal articles in high-impact journals, as well as books in renowned publishing houses, book chapters, other peer-reviewed articles, the occasional book review, and policy documents. What are typically not considered of much value are non-peer-reviewed journal articles, edited books, professional magazines, newspaper op-eds (although the value of reaching a general audience is often acknowledged), working papers, blog posts, and self-published materials. Early-career academics should especially avoid predatory journals and vanity presses.
But all this begs the question, how is ‘what counts’ counted? In the UK, the Research Excellence Framework (REF) measures publications on a scale of 4* (4 star), 3*, 2* and 1*. In the UK REF, a 4* publication, for example, is one that is deemed world-leading in originality, significance and rigor. A 3* is considered internationally excellent in the same three categories but somehow falling short of world-leading (e.g., the paper may not drive a research agenda that others cite and build upon); a 2* paper is recognized internationally as a quality paper in terms of the three criteria but possibly falling short in two of the areas; and a 1* paper is recognized domestically in the three areas of assessment. It is expected that leading faculty members will have several 4* and 3* papers in their portfolio, and will substantially contribute to the institution’s outputs for each REF cycle. There is, however, much grey area where a paper may fall as either a 4* or 3*, or 3* or 2*, in the subjective assessment as faculty committees peer-review papers using this rubric. Thus the metric, though perhaps conjured with the best of intentions toward scientific advancement, is understandably limited in its application.
In Korea, where I am employed, the metric system is roughly equivalent to the UK REF. Faculty are expected to publish in three venues: SSCI-indexed journals, SCOPUS-indexed journals, and domestic KCI-indexed journals. If publishing was awarded medals like the Olympics these indexes might be considered gold, silver and bronze. The indexes are a presumed heuristic of quality, although when applying for jobs the papers will undergo internal peer assessment. All of this is then assigned numeric values (i.e., publication points) at an institutional level to decide hiring, promotion, and tenure. I share here a sample Tenure-Track evaluation model from a university in Korea. Within this model, faculty (once hired) are expected to acquire 300-500 points in their first two years with the university to clear probation, and an additional 500-1500 in the following six years to reach tenure. It is clear that high-impact peer-review journal articles are prioritized.
In response to this competitive environment, and with the desire to accumulate more research points – which may roughly translate into international prestige and a higher position in global university rankings – many Chinese, Korean and Japanese universities now offer faculty financial awards to publish in leading international journals, mainly SSCI and SCOPUS. Payments can be as high as $15,000 USD for a paper in an SSCI journal with a high Impact Factor (IF). Two Korean institutions I am familiar with, for example, offer $6,500 and $5,500 USD respectively for a paper in an SSCI journal, $4,000 and $1,000 respectively for a SCOPUS paper, and $2,500 and $600 respectively for an article in a domestic journal. For those who are research active this could mean an extra $15,000-30,000 annually added to the base salary. There is evidence that universities elsewhere have also started to offer financial incentives for publishing. It is believed that this research investment will generate positive attention for the university.
Within a neoliberal higher education environment where research funding is increasingly difficult to obtain, this end-process incentive, which is attractive to some scholars, helps to ease the financial burden of conducting quality research today. But is it good for science? There is some concern that this practice has led to more plagiarism, unethical authorship (with some listed authors not contributing to the papers), and a confusion of research output as research significance. The sheer number of articles published in scholarly journals each year makes it increasingly difficult for institutions and the scientific community to gauge quality and importance, which in turn serves as the impetus for much of this audit culture. The downside of all this is it is much more competitive to get an academic job today. Higher numbers of publications per researcher are expected, and institutions now also want high IFs and evidence of attracting external research funding. This is why some PhD students and postdocs publish and still perish. Some scholars are fighting back.
Take all of this with a grain of salt, of course, do be suspicious of it, but I would not suggest ignoring it. It will affect those PhD students who wish to be new academics in the near future – even perhaps those who do not wish to do research – and it will affect the next generation of academics that follow those today. It is incumbent upon scholars then to do our best to disrupt this metric mania, to not become complicit in the accountability regime – although I fear that some may already become seduced by the excitement of the game and the intellectual challenge of gaming the system. So how exactly do early-career researchers go about flourishing? I will explore this question in a future sequel in which I offer tips on publishing and thriving in your first years as an academic. Watch this space for the next instalment.
Kevin Kester researches and teaches peacebuilding, higher education, and qualitative research methods as a Research Assistant Professor of International & Area Studies at a mid-range university in Korea. He completed his PhD in the Faculty of Education in Cambridge in 2017. Kevin has published more than 30 peer-reviewed articles and book chapters in international and domestic journals, and acquired research funding in excess of £150,000 in his early career. For more on his research and teaching, see his ResearchGate profile or Google Scholar page.