Publish or perish culture in academia

13 min read

If you are aware of the harsh realities of pursuing a Ph.D. and still decide to pursue the Ph.D., there is one more thing you absolutely need to understand. Sooner or later, you are going to hear the phrase, “publish or perish”. Without context, it does sound harsh as if academia is meant to be a publication pumping machine but there is more to the story.

If you have read my articles on conducting a thorough literature review to prepare a research proposal to address crucial research questions, you would assume that you are all set for a smooth journey ahead. In this article, let us try to objectively look at the facts and myths of this cliché- publish or perish and how you can make a robust research plan to avoid burnout.

Where does publish or perish come from?

Publish or perish in the context of academia refers to consistently and proactively publishing high quality recent findings or risk perishing as the peers might beat you to the punch. The origin of this phrase dates back to 1942 though the question remains it is a good thing or a bad thing in academic context? Let us look at pros and cons of this credo.

What are the pros and cons of publish or perish culture in academia?

Over the years, publish or perish credo has acquired a rather negative connotation and it comes across as if this is but one choice in academia. However, like everything else, there are two sides to the publish or perish culture. So, let us carefully look at both, the pros and cons.

  • Pros:
    • Avoid misinformation: Peer-reviewed academic publications scrutinize every submitted manuscript by relying on subject matter experts. While these experts put in time and effort for reviewing the manuscripts and often are not even compensated for it, peer review ensures that the authors are not attempting to spread misinformation. Then again, the publish or perish credo pushes the researchers to submit high quality research contributions.

    • Responsible research: Often times, the funding agency mandates that the research be published via open access venues to enhance dissipation of knowledge. In doing so, the researcher is prompted to be responsible and ethical in their research practices and make it accessible to all.

    • Dissipation of knowledge: Someone once told me that an idea in the idea or scribbled somewhere in your notebook on your desk is meaningless. Publish or perish credo prompts the researchers to attempt to publish their findings and dissipate their knowledge among others in the field- academic or industrial. This allows furthering the understanding as others can then further build upon and improve the findings with due credit.

    • Build credibility: As an early stage researcher, it is essential to build credibility with time and become a subject matter expert. Arguably, high quality peer-reviewed work is one way to gain visibility and build credibility. Even when writing national or international grants, publications play a role in proving how active a researcher has been in the community and the contributions made thus far.


Now, let us look at the cons of the publish or perish culture.

  • Cons:
    • Inhibits innovation: Often times, the publish or perish credo pushes the researchers to fixate on increasing the publishing frequency. This results in incremental research as opposed to making significant advancements.

    • Stress & anxiety: There is often no golden rule to decide how frequently does one need to publish or risk perishing. This induces stress and anxiety in some researchers as the rate of publications implicitly becomes a performance metric.

    • No control over publication system: The publication cycle is independent and the researchers have little to no control over it. While some conferences may have strict deadlines by which they have make a decision on a submitted manuscript, often the long form journal articles take much longer and then the publish or perish credo adds on to the pressure as external factors might delay the rate of publications.


There is no denying that getting published feels great and can further an academic’s career, but there is also no denying that the publish-or-perish system places too much pressure on academics and institutions.

How does publishing in academia work?

As an early stage researcher one must understand that there are various kinds of publications within academia and their timelines vary across disciplines. However, a high level overview of a typical publication process can be understood with respect to the publication types as follows:

  • Peer-reviewed Conference Proceedings: The term “peer review” basically means that every submission will be voluntarily reviewed by peers who are experts in the field to which the said manuscript will likely contribute if accepted for publication. When submitting a manuscript to a conference, upon formal acceptance, the authors present their work among the audience which gives them a chance to gain exposure and feedback on the spot.

    Some conference these days allow public reviewing, i.e., while the reviewer identity is kept anonymous, the reviewer feedback is posted on a forum such as OpenReview. The authors then are required to defend their idea as per reviewer’s feedback and await a final verdict. Unfortunately, not all conferences have adopted for such open reviews. While some allow for a rebuttal stage wherein authors get one chance to defend their idea and convince the reviewers, most others are just a single shot decision process. Often times, conference articles have limited pages and the authors present initial findings to a larger audience to gather feedback before building on the idea further.

  • Peer-reviewed Journal Articles: Typically, when the initial findings have been established at reputed conference proceedings and maybe even media coverage, the researchers then jump on to the next big thing- the journal articles. Here again, we are only focusing on peer reviewed submissions. Often journal submission require multiple rounds of revisions until a final verdict has been reached. The verdict could either be in the form of : Accept as is, Minor Revision, Major Revision, or, Reject.

    It seems rare to have a journal manuscript accepted for publication in the first round itself and it often goes through a couple different rounds to reach a publication-ready state. The entire duration from submission to formal acceptance for publication might take a year or sometimes even longer depending on the venue and research domain and hence one should factor this in their own timeline when planning their career.

  • Invited talks: The level of scrutiny for such talks is often very low compared to the aforementioned forms of publications. The idea here is to gain traction for the preliminary findings before investing significant amount of time or money. These talks could range from media coverage such as TV or radio interviews, appearing as a guest on podcasts, giving a talk as an invited speaker at a Seminar/Webinar or even submitting an abstract to speak at a Workshop being held in tandem with a conference. As a scholar, peer reviewed contributions are valued a lot more than such talks though for public outreach a balanced contribution towards this category helps.



As you can imagine, depending on the submission type, the review cycles are quite varied that too across disciplines. Thus, in order to manage the timelines of a Ph.D., the candidate is often under pressure to get at least a Journal article under their belt by the time they start working towards their final defense. In some cases, the Ph.D. timelines are quite flexible which helps reduce the pressure but other times, the candidates are funded by certain sources that come with a limited time frame after which the funding ends.

So, the publish or perish not only refers you loosing the novelty of your idea to someone else but also to the fact that your runway might finish before you get to take off (complete your degree). Though, one needs to understand this clearly- an idea in your head is worthless because it’s the execution that matters the most. So, even if someone else is working on an idea similar to yours, which is likely given the vast number of researchers in your area, you can still introduce novelty in the approach which might even result in novel findings. So, all is not lost until you give up, sit back and start enjoying life a little too much.

What are the common pitfalls when publishing in academia?

If you are about to go for your very first publication, you may be stressed out as is trying to get the hang of the administrative process itself. But, there are also some common pitfalls which you must keep in mind and avoid when it comes to academic publishing:

  • Lack of clarity in author contributions: At numerous occasions, it happens that you and perhaps your friend started out casually working on some ideas that eventually converted into a publication but you did not carefully discuss the authorship and lay out the contributions made by each author.

    Now in some disciplines, the authors are listed in alphabetical order in which case, there isn’t much of an issue. The real problem arises when you would need to arrange the authors in terms of the contributions and then a dispute arises as to who gets to be the first author and corresponding author. So, be sure to clarify the authorship ahead of time- preferably in the very early days of the discussions as soon as you have clarity about the expected contributions from each author.

  • Not acknowledging the funding sources properly: As you a new scholar about to submit your very first academic manuscript, you may not know exactly which project funds your research and/or the project name, ID and similar details. In fact, you may not even know that you need to put those details explicitly to acknowledge the funding sources explicitly. But, make no mistake, that messing up your funding acknowledgements can lead to a big administrative mess for you and your supervisor later, so ensure that this is done carefully before submission.

  • Don’t fall prey to predatory submission venues: When a research scholar feels the time crunch, they often put the blinders on (like a race horse) and fall prey to publish or perish rat race. This is likely to happen when the scholar learns that a journal publisher they are interested in submitting to might take a year or longer to get through including multiple rounds of revisions, they often start looking for alternatives.

    In a desperate attempt to find alternatives with shorter timelines, they might fall prey to what are now known as “predatory publication venues“. Basically, there is no sense of quality control at these venues. As long as an author pays for submission, the review process is conducted for formality and in under a week or so, the paper is ready for publication. As an early stage research scholar, it might be hard for you to spot a predatory venue yourself, but just look for signs such as pay to publish and always make note of the venues where your seniors are consistently publishing. There is a high chance that they have filtered out the top tier venues in your area of research and hence stick to those to avoid falling prey to such predatory venues.

  • Be extremely cautious of plagiarism, even self-plagiarism. When it comes to academic writing, one thing you should really focus on aside from grammatically correct writing is to avoid plagiarism. And yes, this applies to self-plagiarism too. What this means is that when you have a piece of your work submitted to a particular venue for review, you are ethically obliged to not submit the same manuscript to another venue, simultaneously. Additionally, when extending your work from a conference proceeding to a journal article, you should have a significant amount of novel contribution and in the new manuscript you should explicitly mention the additional work you have done compared to the past contribution. Plagiarism, be it self-plagiarism or from other sources is strictly looked down upon in academia and you should refrain from plagiarizing at all costs.

  • Rejections are part of the process not the end of it: As an early stage researcher, know that rejections are part and parcel of the publication process and the rejections will likely sting in the beginning, especially the first one. But, rejections are not the end of the road for you and they don’t mean you are going to perish just yet. Just improve what you can based on the reviewer’s feedback and try to submit to other venues. Sometimes, rejections happen immediately by the Editor as soon as you submit a manuscript for potential publication. This is commonly called as “desk rejection” and does not necessarily reflect upon your quality of work. It could just be that your contributions do not align well with the publication venue and you just need to find other venues that are better suited.

Key takeaways

The publish or perish culture isn’t just for academia. In essence, it can be expanded to something like perform or perish and applied to almost every performance-driven field, including industry. The thing is however, over the years it has mostly acquired a negative connotation and is now often seen as a rat race wherein scholars either have to keep on publishing or get left behind in the race to move up the ranks in academia. As a result, there are various downsides, ranging from adverse affects on the scholars mental and physical well being such as burnout to dilution in quality of research contributions. Thus, one should look at both sides of this credo and avoid the common pitfalls when going for your first publication in academia. So, now you are ready to submit your results to top-tier peer-reviewed conferences and  journals. If you get accepted to present at a conference, learn how to prepare yourself to present at your first academic conference.