Publish, or you could be damned

Academics who don't get their papers into respected journals could lose their jobs. The pressure to be published can result in some sharp practices, says Maureen O'Connor
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The Independent Online
Academic information, as Robert Maxwell discovered, is a valuable commodity. Provided by eager researchers from thousands of universities worldwide, it is packaged and promoted by publishers and sold to libraries and to individual academics who need to keep in touch with their colleagues' latest work. Publish enough research papers and academic preferment beckons. Fail to get published and your job may be on the line.

The publish-or perish-culture has become so pervasive in the United States, where a coveted tenured post depends on publications, that an eminent physicist recently made a public protest. He persuaded an academic journal to publish his paper Transgressing the Boundaries - Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity, only confessing afterwards that it was a spoof. The scientist wanted to highlight the fact that if a paper had a sufficient number of trendy and obscure references it would get published.

Transgressing the Boundaries was only intended to deceive on a very temporary basis. But the suggestion that the academic emperor may not be wearing all his clothes is not unique. According to Dr Stephen Lock, former editor of the prestigious British Medical Journal, who has written a book on the subject, there is a small but significant amount of fraud in the academic world motivated by the desire to publish at almost any cost.

"It is not great, perhaps 0.25 per cent of all research projects. But almost any academic knows of instances of plagiarism, piracy - that is stealing someone else's work - or cooking of results to make them look better." Increased pressure of all kinds in academic life, Dr Lock thinks, makes the risk of suspect work slipping through the checks and balances of the system all the greater.

And the pressure is growing. In the UK it has been exacerbated by the Research Assessment Exercise, which is grading departments on a one-to- five scale. The RAE itself is looking for quality rather than quantity of published material, but several universities are already threatening staff who do not appear to be performing well enough to meet their employers' grade requirements.

Unfortunately for the academics who desperately need to be published, the market is against them. Bob Campbell of Blackwell, one of the major players in Britain's pounds 50m journal business, is at the sharp end. "There is a huge amount of 'me too' research being done by people who want to keep their jobs," he says. "The new universities without a long history of research are under particular pressure to perform. At the same time cash-strapped university libraries are 'deselecting' journals and cancelling subscriptions."

To some extent publishers have been able to keep journals going by making use of new technology. Authors are now expected to submit their papers on disc, and referees increasingly receive them over the Internet. That speeds up delivery to referees, although it does not shorten the time needed to read and assess the work. Where they can't save money at their end, publishers are having to explore new deals with the universities to try to keep prices down and journals available.

But while the number of papers published per British academic went up between 1980 and 1990 from 1.5 to 6 per university teacher, the number of new journals launched to accommodate them has been declining steadily since 1970. So the competition for space increases.

Publishers are trying to meet demand for space by increasing the numbers of pages in their journals. But they know that the strain on their editors and the academics who referee papers is increasing too. Quality, and the detection of fraudulent or sub-standard work, depends upon this network of unpaid peer reviewers, who are themselves teachers and researchers seeking publication and grants and complaining of ever-increasing stress.

Publishers are aware that the integrity of the whole system depends on rigorous peer review. On the whole they believe the system still works, and, as one put it, they would "home in" on any journal that they felt was not maintaining standards. But they know that at some point the system may crack.

Professor Harry Smith, of Leicester University, who edits three journals in the field of biological sciences, has seen his newest, Molecular Ecology, grow very quickly since it was launched six years ago. "This is partly because this is a rapidly expanding field. But there is no doubt that there is increased pressure to publish and to publish in the best journals. At the same time it is becoming more difficult to persuade academics to review papers. The people we rely on for peer review are under pressure themselves. They do it only out of a sense of duty and a feeling that they need to be published themselves."

Competition is most fierce for a place in the journals with the highest "impact factor". This is a rating devised in the 1960s by the American Institute for Scientific Information, and has become the only internationally accepted ranking for journals. It works by counting the number of times a journal's articles are cited by other academics in their papers. The higher the citation rating, the more desirable a journal becomes in its field.

According to Bob Campbell of Blackwell, when the RAE announced that it would be using the impact factor in its assessment of research quality the scramble to get published in the best journals went up a notch. "I've had editors receiving 17 papers a week. You see them wandering around looking shell-shocked by it all."

Even Nature, probably the world's most eminent scientific journal, is feeling the pressure, according to its physical sciences editor, Carl Ziemelis. Only 10 per cent of Nature's papers originate in the UK, and only one in three gets as far as a peer review. Nature is looking not only for academic excellence but also for the potential of a piece of research to interest a wide general audience - and this may not please authors.

"We have had authors who have been rejected on the phone querying the decision. And we get the feeling that our reviewers are under great pressure. Sometimes we simply hear nothing from them, although we try to persuade them to let us know if they cannot review what we send them," Carl Ziemelis says.

As well as complaining to editors, authors have other tricks up their sleeves to try to ensure publication. Editors in one multi-disciplinary field have banded together to try to prevent multiple submissions. Even the most humble journal emulates Nature in demanding exclusive publication rights. "If we found a paper had been duplicated we simply would not consider it," Carl Ziemelis says.

Another ploy is to spin a single piece of research out into as many papers as possible. What might previously have appeared in one journal article is now divided into five segments, each submitted separately. Publishers complain that while this may suit the researchers, it is not very helpful to their readers.

And if citation is important, then some academics boost their ratings by citing their own work at length in their list of references. Then there is the habit of some eminent professors of attaching their names to every piece of work that is produced by their research team. "There are some professors publishing every five days," says Stephen Lock, whose book Fraud and Misconduct in Medical Research has just gone into its second edition. "It's a bit like claiming co-authorship of Hamlet because you happened to be around when Shakespeare was short of a pencil."

Stephen Lock is concerned that things may get worse before they get better. Academics can no longer afford the time to replicate research results, which used to be one means of ensuring that fraudulent - or mistaken - results were detected, he says. Claims that cold fusion had been achieved in America and an alleged cure for Aids "discovered" by Dutch scientists collapsed very quickly because they could not be replicated by other scientists, Dr Lock says.

Such claims, he suggests, may involve more self-delusion than intent to defraud, but the system should be robust enough to pick them up before publication, rather than after. The question now is whether, in a increasingly fierce publish or perish climate, it is