Pressure to publish hurting early-career scientists

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Students learning lab techniques Copyright: Coralie Giese, CDC, CC BY 2.0

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[HEIDELBERG, GERMANY] Scientific publishing gives exposure to researchers, especially when the results are publicly accessible.

My many years as a science journalist have taught me that research is crucial in helping solve problems facing the world. In Africa, communities need solutions to challenges such as disease, climate change-related impacts including prolonged droughts, famine and food shortage.

However, while attending the 7th Heidelberg Laureate Forum (23-27 September) in Heidelberg, Germany, it became clear to me that the pressure to frequently publish academic works for career building is a major threat to production of high quality papers by young scientists that can be translated into societal benefits.

According to Abimbola Helen Afolayan, a lecturer at the Department of Computer Science, Federal University of Technology, Akure in Nigeria, frequent scientific publishing is not easy for young researchers in Africa.

The push to publish in peer-reviewed journals is making some of us shun cutting- edge research for breakthroughs.

Abimbola Helen Afolayan, Federal University of Technology Akure, Nigeria

“The push to publish frequently in peer-reviewed journals is making some of us shun cutting- edge research for breakthroughs,” she says.

And most young researchers, she adds, lack mentorship, funding, and research and writing skills.

Speaking at the event, Efim Isaakovich Zelmanov, a mathematician from the US-based University of California San Diego, said that the publish or perish culture is putting unnecessary pressure on early-career scientists.

Africa, for instance, is known for little submissions, accounting for only about 1.1 per cent of the global output and, according to Zelmanov, adding that lack of good education is largely responsible for this.
I learnt from the forum that young scientists need to publish less to produce high quality papers as opposed to regular publishing that heavily compromises their research capabilities.

Julie Williamson, a lecturer in human computer interaction at the UK’s University of Glasgow, said, “As the quantities of publications keep growing and the demand to publish is weighing on us, we will publish for reasons that have nothing to do with scientific contributions.”

For instance, a young computer scientist’s motivation to publish frequently may be driven by the desire to attend conferences, or because of requirement to do so much work annually. 

That is not the same as publishing because a researcher has made an important discovery to disseminate. It is important to attend conferences to build your networks and get fresh ideas but one of the main purposes of research is to inform action for societal transformations. It is about understanding various issues and increase public awareness.

From the meeting, I got the impression that to “publish or perish” is a horrible stress on early researchers. It makes them go for less risky research, those that they know will definitely be published.

 And Williamson fittingly put it: “They will not be exploring the more creative, unusual ideas to prove they can work or not. Those in their early career will have to play it safe. They cannot take risks for interesting breakthroughs because they need to have something that they can publish and not negative results that are not publishable.”
The academia needs to be more concerned about the production of high quality results in order to produce knowledge that is applicable outside of the research setting.
This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Sub-Saharan Africa English desk.