Publishing can be a means of success for doctoral students - even if they don't get published

The 'publish or perish' mindset creates a false dichotomy of success for doctoral students. In my experience as a doctoral student in Australia I often heard that my success depended on 'getting published', but I have learnt that the process of publishing is also a valuable means of success.
Published in Social Sciences
Publishing can be a means of success for doctoral students - even if they don't get published

In Australia, publications are used as a key measure of research productivity in the Excellence in Research for Australia (ERA) framework; interactions such as citations and the sharing of publications are relied upon to measure research impact by individuals and institutions worldwide. Being measurable in this way thus ultimately affects the success of a researcher. 

As a doctoral student in Australia I was encouraged to publish my research ‘as I went’ and along the way i heard accounts from many doctoral students who experienced similar pressure to publish, sometimes even before they had commenced their study.

Yet, despite the pressure, I did not end up publishing my research and for now opportunity has led me to pursue a non-academic career.

My experience has shown me that these metrics quickly lose their significance on the outside, where publications are nice to have but not essential to success. It has provided me with important insight, that research is very much a social institution and factors such as where and with whom a doctoral student is trained or works also have critical implications for their success.

Research in the field of the Science of Science1 (meta science) is starting to shed light on the elements of success for researchers. Studies2,3 of authorship behaviour have shown that experience publishing with prominent researchers (chaperoning) can improve a researcher’s chance of publishing in prestigious academic journals and of achieving research impact. The prestige of a work environment is also important, it has been shown to lead to greater productivity and impact4. This effect is not only limited to researchers in certain disciplines and it has even been shown to affect the reputation and success of artists5. The training of doctoral students is also an important factor which affects their development and ongoing success6.

Unfortunately these opportunities are scarce and limited by the inequitable distribution of resources caused in part by the phenomena of cumulative advantage (the rich-get-richer) which is present throughout the research system. Positions at prestigious institutions and opportunities to work or train with prominent researchers are in high demand. In the face of ever increasing competition it is unreasonable to expect that an aspiring researcher will be able to chaperone a prominent researcher or find a position at a prestigious institution.

This inequity is compounded by information disparity for doctoral students and early career researchers. Many will take a leap of faith when choosing where or who to work or train with, unaware of the factors underpinning their chances of success and lacking access to the appropriate sources and channels of information when making a decision.

To begin addressing this inequity the evaluation of doctoral students must be sensitive to the issues of inequity and disadvantage that are present in the research system. The assumption that all doctoral students will have access to the same opportunities needs to be debunked, and performance metrics such as publication output should be assessed relative to opportunity. Researchers also need to be informed of the social factors that underpin success in research and this information needs to be made more accessible to inform key decisions by doctoral students.

Doctoral students and researchers can also take steps to proactively address this inequity. The process of preparing a publication can be used by doctoral students as a vehicle for socialisation, providing exposure to the research community and as a means of engaging in disciplinary discourses long before a publication is produced. Leveraging the process in this way may involve presenting work-in-progress at a conference, asking an external collaborator to provide feedback on a draft manuscript or by making the manuscript available as a preprint prior to publication.

These are some of the ways in which the process of publishing can be taken advantage of to address inequity and improve the chances of success for doctoral students. If the ‘publish or perish’ mantra is set aside, and publishing is viewed as a means not an end in itself then opportunities emerge to engage with the social factors that underpin success both within and outside of the academy.


  1. Fortunato, S. et al. Science of science. Science (80-. ). 359, eaao0185 (2018).
  2. Li, W., Aste, T., Caccioli, F. & Livan, G. Achieving competitive advantage in academia through early career coauthorship with top scientists. arXiv Prepr. arXiv1906.04619 (2019).
  3. Sekara, V. et al. The chaperone effect in scientific publishing. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. 15, 12603–12607 (2018).
  4. Way, S. F., Morgan, A. C., Larremore, D. B. & Clauset, A. Productivity, prominence, and the effects of academic environment. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. 116, 10729–10733 (2019).
  5. Samuel P. Fraiberger, Roberta Sinatra, Magnus Resch, Christoph Riedl & Albert-László Barabási. Quantifying reputation and success in art. Science (80-. ). 362, 825–829 (2018).
  6. Shibayama, S. Sustainable development of science and scientists: Academic training in life science labs. Res. Policy 48, 676–692 (2019).

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