Risk, Reward and Diminishing Returns: Reflections on the Publish or Perish Paradigm

Risk, Reward and Diminishing Returns: Reflections on the Publish or Perish Paradigm

When I was in grade 5, I devised my first scientific experiment. In one sealed beaker, I placed a plant. Using a tube, I connected that beaker to another sealed beaker full of water. It was a simple experiment that demonstrated how photosynthesis created oxygen, evident in the bubbles produced in the water. I was able to then share these findings at the school science fair. There was something exhilarating about sharing my findings, but even more exciting was learning from others about their projects. It was in my elementary school gym where I first got a taste of the scientific process, and, no pun intended, a small seed was planted in my mind about the possibility of one day becoming a researcher. I would later complete my BSc in Biology, but then pivoted into a completely different direction, going on to a master's in occupational therapy. I spent about five years working in healthcare, all the while having a strong desire to find my way back to academia. In 2016, I returned to school to start my PhD in cognitive neuroscience, where I currently study the psychological impacts of urban design.

The PhD, like most experiences in life, is neither all good nor all bad. It's complex. I've deeply enjoyed immersing myself in an area of research I'm passionate about. One of my favourite aspects of my program has been to observe and participate in discussions in the seminars hosted in my department. Each week, graduate students present "brown bags", where they share their most recent research. The talks are followed up by a question period, where both peers and faculty can provide feedback and ask questions of the students. Each week I’m reminded of why I am sitting in that seat in my seminar room; it conjures memories of my school science fair.

Despite enjoying the gifts provided in the academy, I've been struggling with a system I'm observing. A system I believe is antithetical to science. People were telling me I was making a terrible decision to leave a good healthcare job to do a PhD. But, I did it because I believed in the scientific process. And, the scientific process, as far as I am concerned, exists on the foundation of "trying things". Taking the temperature, I get the impression that we, particularly students, should take less risks in favour of quickly churning out papers. 

The pressure to constantly publish is frequently on my mind, but I don’t know that it's compatible with the task I have ahead of me. That task, in part, involves contributing methodologies to a small but burgeoning field in the hopes we can collaborate to develop a unified approach. We're still in the early stages of figuring out how to go about measuring how people respond to their built environment. It's a transdisciplinary field, so we are cobbling together methodologies taken from seemingly disparate areas of research, from landscape architecture to neuroscience. In my research, I place people in virtual urban environments built from scratch in a computer program and use psychophysiology to measure emotional responses and scales that are informed by urban planning research to measure cognitive appraisals of the built environment. Psychophysiological data is messy and requires a lot of processing and cleaning, and the analysis of the cleaned data can be painstaking. We also require sample sizes of at least 100 people to obtain sufficient power. One experiment can take hundreds of hours to run and analyze. If I went into academia with the goal of publishing extensively, I likely would have chosen a different field, and certainly a different, more established methodology. This train of thought leads me to a place where I start thinking about how to "hack" the academy. I know I'm not alone in this sentiment. Will this anxious approach produce good science?

(Photo Credit: Matthew McCarthy)

I’ve also been reflecting on the purpose of publication. My original (pre-PhD) thinking was that publication was a method to disseminate knowledge and inform other researchers, and the public, on successful and unsuccessful practices; to help others benefit from the process of trial and error. However, I don't believe this to be the case anymore considering we've created a system that passively condemns trying new things. Why take risks that won’t turn into the least publishable unit?

Academia, as it currently exists, is unhealthy, and accordingly, will produce unhealthy academics. We need to look no further than predatory journals. That they even exist should tell you something about the state of affairs. Predatory journals are an indicator species for an ailing system. Something important to consider is the fact that graduate students are co-creating and contributing to this malady. I know the statistics on how many graduate students end up in academia are not good, but some of us WILL make it through. How can we go about creating better conditions for the next generation? It is a complex problem and will require a complex solution, but one place to start is to re-evaluate what activities are rewarded in academia. Don’t get me wrong, I believe peer review and publication are important, but, we need an expanded set of metrics. We must focus on other aspects of scholarship, when it comes to hiring and promotion. Publicly engaged scholarship and community outreach should hold more weight. Alternate forms of knowledge dissemination should be encouraged. Teaching should be prioritized. Service should be celebrated.

I’m not trying to be pessimistic; I’m attempting to be a realist. But, I’m optimistic. That we are even talking about the problem suggests we are conscious of it, and that is the first step. But, we desperately need to take the next step and make some significant changes. I can understand why we're inclined to be risk averse, but we can’t be incremental in the process of transformation. We need to shake things up. If we want a healthier system, healthier people, and healthier research, drastic changes are necessary. We need to start now. 

Robin Mazumder is a Vanier Scholar and PhD candidate in Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Waterloo. He can be found on Twitter at @robinmazumder.

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