The “publish or perish” culture continues to skew research


Despite rules introduced two years ago to reduce publishing pressure on postgraduate students in China, heavy pressure on research students continues to distort the country’s research environment, according to a new study.

A recently published paper* by Hugo Horta, Associate Professor at the Faculty of Education, University of Hong Kong (HKU), and Huan Li, Ph. extent of the emphasis on publishing articles during doctoral studies in China and its detrimental impact on all other learning and activities.

“In every interview we conducted [with doctoral students]everything would be reduced to one thing, which was publications,” Horta said. Academia News. “It’s really worrying. How is it that the whole doctoral experience, which should be much more rewarding and expansive, and should be influenced by a whole set of different factors, is reduced to one thing?

The study is based on an analysis of 90 interviews with mainland Chinese doctoral students at Chinese research-oriented universities, as well as with students from Hong Kong and Macau.

The article notes that the need to publish “has become the most powerful and centralizing factor” perceived by students. “The current dynamic of doctoral education is one of ‘publish or perish,’ and this dynamic influences all aspects of doctoral learning and career decision-making,” the document states.

Almost all of those interviewed believed that universities seeking to fill academic positions only consider applicants’ publications and educational backgrounds. While contacts mattered, more than 80% of respondents thought their publication profile was the only thing they could change to build their resume while in graduate school, according to the results.

Universities in mainland China generally rate research performance based on formulas that give journal articles much more weight than other forms of research output. They base their performance on indices such as the SCI (Science Citation Index), SSCI (Social Sciences Citation Index) and CSSCI (Chinese Social Sciences Citation Index), despite recent government efforts to reduce reliance on these indices to university promotions and jobs. offers.

fierce competition

The “certification” of publications along with ever-increasing competition for entry-level academic positions is making students believe that they must “race to publish before anything else or they will fail,” according to the study. According to the results, students who perceived themselves to have unsatisfactory publication records communicated a high degree of professional anxiety.

“The doctoral journey has been reduced to an academic tournament in which publications become the central goal and determine doctoral success,” according to the document, which also notes that students in hard sciences and applied disciplines have many more opportunities. career opportunities outside of academia and are relatively less motivated by publication pressure.

“The results took us by surprise,” Horta said, adding that he and his co-author originally looked at how doctoral students make decisions about their career paths after their doctorate.

“We wanted to take a broader view and try to understand what influences their [career] choice at the end of the day,” Horta said. “What struck us was that what they thought they could accomplish with a doctorate was reduced to publications, and not necessarily to the new knowledge generated.”

The narrow focus on publishing papers was explained by many PhD students as impacting their ability to be recruited for academic jobs in the kinds of universities and cities they aspired to.

After a long period of expansion of higher education and research in China, the market is now shrinking, according to Horta, and competition for university jobs has intensified.

“Most of the pressures come from the academic job market and the way it’s structured,” Horta said. “The pressure of their [PhD] the supervisor adds to the pressure, but it is not the main force behind this pressure.

Horta added that this was different from doctoral students in Hong Kong and Macao, which have a different research culture.

The harsh “public or perish” mentality is not new in China. However, it continued despite government attempts to reduce the overriding reliance on publishing papers during doctoral studies by issuing new regulations.

In part, the persistence of this pressure is due to the fact that current PhD students see the path followed by previous cohorts to succeed as the only way.

“It doesn’t matter whether there is a new law or not, some students told us that things shouldn’t be like this. Some of them referred to the law saying that “things are supposed to change”. But at the moment it is still the same criteria,” Horta said.

“Maybe it’s slowly changing, but it [publishing culture] is pretty much still in place,” he added.

Impact on quality

Horta said the focus on publications was detrimental to the quality of research. Doctoral students sometimes choose topics simply because they are conducive to quick publication, he said, adding that they “aim for the short term, the immediacy, rather than consolidating certain ideas that require more time. .

“It reflects a decline in quality or a lowering of standards. They don’t go for the risky stuff where the frontier of knowledge is…the kind of experience where if it fails, failure is also part of the learning experience.

The article found that doctoral students tend to ‘commodify’ knowledge production and focus on ‘hot’ publishable topics. They tended to view research in terms of numbers of publications rather than advancing knowledge in response to societal and research challenges.

They also showed a propensity to devalue coursework and teaching assistantships, turn supervisors into “release facilitators,” view peers as rivals rather than current or future collaborators, and marginalize engagement with external stakeholders.

In the long run, areas of research that are not conducive to publication could face a “brain drain” and weaken, the paper notes.

Research collaboration

Horta said that although peers are generally not considered potential collaborators in mainland China, it appears from the interview conducted that those interviewees who had gone abroad for a period of research began to collaborate, not only with their supervisor in the host university, but also with other researchers.

“But it has different signage. It is to say “I went abroad and I can collaborate with foreigners”. They therefore see it as an add-on that says “I am part of an international university network”, to which students who are only on the continent do not have access.

Horta said more government pressure on the importance of broadening academic experience must be exerted for things to begin to change, as legislation is not enough.

“It will take an effort and a change from the universities themselves [signalling] that it is not good practice to rely solely on the number of posts,” he said.

* Hugo Horta & Huan Li (2022): ‘Only publishing: the primary objective of doctoral students in mainland China, Hong Kong and Macao’, Studies in higher education,

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