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From the Editor's Desk

Martin B Van Der Weyden
Med J Aust 2002; 176 (10): 453.
Published online: 20 May 2002

Publish and perish

"Publish or perish" is the sword of Damocles that hovers over researchers, whose publishing productivity is linked to professional reputation, grant support, academic tenure and promotion. The pressure to publish has an obvious downside — a growing avalanche of published research papers and the steady expansion of new journals into the niche markets of academia and research.

In his essay The publishing game: getting more for less, United States science commentator William Broad reminds us that James D Watson was promoted to associate professor at Harvard nearly 50 years ago on the strength of 18 publications, including his legendary paper on DNA. That today most candidates would need at least 50 or even 100 articles reflects a shift in emphasis in research publication from quality to quantity.

Indeed, this has spawned such unsavoury practices as salami publication (where researchers publish their findings in multiple, short papers, usually in different journals, rather than in one substantive paper); redundant publication (where the same results are published in different journals); gift publication (in which the only contributions made by some authors are their names); and factitious publication (where data are lifted from other people’s published work or simply fabricated).

But to what extent does all this matter? Frank Davidoff, a US medical editor, recently noted that "science does not exist until it is published . . . and read".

With more than four million biomedical articles published annually, it is highly likely that a considerable number are neither read nor cited.

The time is long past for academia and research granting bodies to put their houses in order and emphasise quality rather than quantity of research output. Should they fail to do so, researchers’ names will increasingly be associated with large volumes of work of questionable quality, and the maxim "publish or perish" will effectively become "publish and perish".

  • Martin B Van Der Weyden

  • The Medical Journal of Australia

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