The Reality Of Academic Publishing

Near the start of my PhD, a professor gave me insight into what publishing in academia was really like.

This professor was one of the more successful ones in my department, and the most liked among PhD students, especially his own.

He looked at me and said, “Academics write papers for their careers. During your career, only about 20% of the papers you write, you’ll actually care about. The other 80%, you write because you have to. Your career depends on them.”

The fact that he was successful and was known for being a straight-shooter made his advice all the more impactful. And it turns out that that is the reality of academic publishing.

Most papers you write, and that anyone writes, are uninspired works that exist solely because the writers wrestled with whatever they had just to get something out.

Sometimes, there’s reason to write these papers, for example, you might’ve found something small and minor, but useful for other researchers to know. However, even in these times, instead of writing a smaller document, or even including it in a larger research project, it’s written it into a paper, all by itself.

We all understand that these papers kind of have to exist, given the current way academia is run. But, what are the long-term consequences of such practices?

The major one is the overproduction of papers that don’t mean anything. For example, having to read more and more papers, while getting less and less out of each one, just sucks up each researcher’s time, which makes it harder for them to achieve anything – instead of using that time on important research tasks, it’s spent reading all the fluff around the nugget of information that the entire paper is built around. Usually, the time spent reading the entire paper is not worth the little grain of goodness you finally find.

One attempt to help researchers overcome this time-sink is “literature review papers”, where a paper is written about the entire field, reporting the findings of all the papers into one. These papers are of enormous help because you don’t have to read the mountains of papers in the field, yet, which researcher can resist foregoing these other papers still?

Every researcher I know has a little nagging voice in the back of their head saying, “But what if there are other things in those papers that this literature review paper didn’t cover?”

And who can sleep well knowing that that’s a real possibility??

So, while one attempted solution (which has come about fairly organically) to the underlying problem has formed, it isn’t quite adequate. Ironically, these papers add to the number of papers you end up having to read.

What is the solution to this problem? Are there any make-shift ones? Or, do the all-important metrics of the number of papers, citations, h-indices, and so on, need to change? If nothing changes, then in 50 years’ time, a PhD will probably just be reading for 5 years.

Because academic careers run on papers, the easier and quicker you can write papers, the less stressed you’ll be. Read this book to learn how to write papers easier and quicker and thrive:

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