‘Publish or perish’ culture continues to distort research
Despite rules brought in two years ago to reduce publishing pressure on postgraduate students in China, severe pressure on research students continues to distort the research environment in the country, a new study has found.
A recently published paper* by Hugo Horta, associate professor in the faculty of education at the University of Hong Kong (HKU), and Huan Li, a PhD student at HKU, titled “Nothing but publishing” provides up-to-date evidence of the scale of the overemphasis on publishing papers during doctoral studies in China and its detrimental impact on all other learning and activities.
“In each and every interview we conducted [with doctoral students], everything would be reduced to one thing, which was publications,” Horta told University World News. “This is really concerning. How is it that the whole PhD experience, which should be much more enriching and vast, and should be influenced by a set of different factors, is reduced to just one thing?”
The study draws on an analysis of 90 interviews with mainland Chinese doctoral students at research-oriented universities in China, as well as students in Hong Kong and Macau.
The paper notes that the need to publish “has become the most powerful and centralising factor” perceived by the students. “The current dynamics in doctoral education are those of ‘publish or perish’, and those dynamics influence all aspects of both doctoral learning and career decision-making,” the paper states.
Nearly all of those interviewed believed universities seeking to fill academic positions only consider applicants’ publications and educational background. While contacts mattered, more than 80% of the interviewees believed that their publication profile was the only thing they could change to build their CVs during doctoral study, according to the findings.
Mainland Chinese universities usually evaluate research performance based on formulas that give journal articles far more weight than other forms of research output. They base performance on indices such as the SCI (Science Citation Index), the SSCI (Social Sciences Citation Index) and the CSSCI (Chinese Social Sciences Citation Index), despite recent government efforts to reduce reliance on these indices for academic promotions and job offers.
The ‘credentialisation’ of publications alongside ever-fiercer competition for entry-level academic positions makes students believe they must “race to publish above anything else, or they will fail”, the study found. Students who perceived themselves to have unsatisfactory publication records communicated a high degree of career anxiety, according to the findings.
“The doctoral journey has been reduced to an academic tournament in which publications become the central goal and determine doctoral success,” according to the paper, which also noted that students in hard sciences and applied disciplines had far more career opportunities outside of academia and were comparatively less driven by publication pressure.
“The results took us by surprise,” Horta said, adding that he and his co-author were originally looking at how PhD students make decisions on their career paths after their PhD.
“We wanted to have a broader picture and try to understand what influences their [career] choices ultimately,” said Horta. “What struck us was that what they thought could be achieved with a PhD was reduced to publications, and not necessarily to the new knowledge that was generated.”
The narrow focus on publishing papers was explained by many doctoral students as impacting on their ability to be recruited for academic jobs in the types of universities and cities to which they aspired.
After a long period of expansion in higher education and research in China, the market is now shrinking, according to Horta, and competition for academic jobs has risen.
“Most of the pressure comes from the academic labour market, and how it’s structured,” Horta said. “Pressure from their [PhD] supervisor adds to the pressure, but it’s not the main force behind this pressure.”
Horta added that this was different from PhD students in Hong Kong and Macau which have a different research culture.
The severe ‘public or perish’ mentality is not new in China. However, it has continued despite attempts by the government to reduce the overriding dependence on publishing papers during doctoral studies by publishing new regulations.
In part, the persistence of this pressure is because current PhD students see the path that previous cohorts followed to become successful as the only way.
“No matter if there is a new law or not, some of the students mentioned to us that things shouldn’t be like this. Some of them mentioned the law, saying ‘things are supposed to change. But right now, it’s still the same criteria’,” Horta said.
“Maybe it is changing slowly, but this [publishing culture] is pretty much still in place,” he added.
Impact on quality
Horta said the overriding focus on publications was detrimental to research quality. PhD students sometimes pick topics merely because they are conducive to rapid publishing, he said, adding that they “are going for the short-term, for the immediacy, rather than to consolidate some ideas that require more time”.
“It reflects a lowering of quality or lowering of standards. They’re not going for the risky stuff where the frontier of knowledge is … the kind of experiment where, if it fails, failure is also part of the learning experience.”
The paper found doctoral students tended to ‘commodify’ knowledge production and focus on ‘hot’ publishable topics. They tended to consider research in terms of publication numbers rather than as knowledge advancement in response to societal and research challenges.
They also showed a propensity to devalue coursework and teaching assistantships, transform supervisors into ‘publishing facilitators’, regard peers as rivals rather than current or future collaborators, and marginalise engagement with external stakeholders.
In the long term, research fields that are not conducive to publishing may face ‘brain drain’ and become weaker, the paper noted.
Horta said that although peers were typically not seen as potential collaborators in mainland China, from the interview conducted it emerged that interviewees who had gone abroad for a period of research did start collaborating, not just with their supervisor in the host university, but also with other researchers.
“But this has a different signalling. It’s to say ‘I went abroad and I can collaborate with foreigners’. So they see it as an add-on that says ‘I am part of an international scholarly network’, which the students that are only in the mainland do not have access to.”
Horta said that more government pressure on the importance of broadening the academic experience needs to be brought to bear for things to start changing because legislation was not enough.
“It’s going to need an effort and a change from the universities themselves [signalling] that it is not a good practice only to rely on numbers of publications,” he said.
* Hugo Horta & Huan Li (2022): ‘Nothing but publishing: the overriding goal of PhD students in mainland China, Hong Kong, and Macau’, Studies in Higher Education,