Reporting on their findings from qualitative research project focused PhD students across China, Hugo Horta and Huan Li explore how a culture of publication has become central to doctoral study and discuss how this can negatively impact wider aspects of academic life.
Doctoral students are increasingly expected to have their research results published during their programme of study. The increase in the share of doctoral students among authors of academic publications could be a positive trend. By publishing during doctoral studies, students learn to prepare publications, are exposed to scholarly and scientific critique, learn how to respond and adapt their research to meet the recommendations of reviewers and are further socialised into broader research processes. It encourages the publication of findings earlier than if these publications would only come to fruition after the conclusion of the PhD and can prevent the possibility that findings end up not being published. However, it may also signal that the truism ‘publish or perish’ is infringing upon doctoral education, given that publishing during the PhD also plays into the interests of students with academic aspirations, supervisors striving for career advancement, and universities eager to improve their university rankings.
Most studies on ‘publish or perish’ focus on its influence on established academics. Many of these studies also underline the growing levels of stress it generates. A few studies assess the influence of publishing during the PhD on career trajectories and research profiles, but seldom touch on the publishing pressure that doctoral students may face. This was the aim of our study, to understand if ‘publish and perish’ dynamics and pressures are present in the journeys of doctoral students, and if so, to what extent and with what impact. To investigate how ‘publish or perish’ influences the doctoral journey, identity development, and career choices of doctoral students, we interviewed 90 mainland Chinese PhD students in a wide range of disciplines at ten research universities (eight in mainland China, one in Hong Kong, and one in Macau). Despite differences in learning environments and societies, mainland Chinese students in all three jurisdictions have the labour market (academic or not) in mainland China on the horizon for their future careers and thus face relatively homogeneous recruitment demands and requirements.
Our findings captured the dynamics of ‘publish or perish’ in doctoral education and evidenced their influence on students’ choices over pursuing academic or non-academic career paths. Most interviewees affirmed that their publication record was the determinant factor regarding their chances of pursuing a career in academia, and if so, then what type of university. Publications were considered by the students, the only thing they could do in their doctoral journey to enhance their competitiveness for future careers and positioning considering that the university where they were doing the PhD and the supervisor was already set. Around 30% of the interviewees had been aware of this by observing academics and PhD students’ work practices during their bachelor’s or master’s studies and thus set publishing goals before entering the doctoral programme. For others, the centrality of publishing was encouraged by their supervisors and doctoral alumni already working in Chinese universities. Students developed a sense of crisis about future job competition based on multiple sources of information and thus endeavoured to gain competitiveness by publishing at all costs.
The perceived priority of publishing at all costs was found to impact all three strands (intellectual, network, and institutional) of identity trajectory development during the doctoral journey thus limiting their training and socialisation and potentially endangering the sustainable development of academia and science.
Knowledge for publication’s sake
In relation to the intellectual strand, the publication obsession led PhD students to commodify knowledge production, select ‘hot’ publishable topics, and lose sight of the purpose of knowledge advancement beyond publication. Many were highly instrumental, essentially saying:
“I know what the right method is and what excellent research should be, but I won’t do it”. Because if you follow those standards, it would be hard to survive. …’,
This indicates how publication pressure, generally believed to haunt primarily post-doctoral academics, has affected the research activities of PhD students, to the extent that focus is shifting away from fields of knowledge where it is harder to publish, or which may be considered to have less visibility.
Marginalisation of teaching experience
With respect to the institutional strand, prioritising publishing makes students see coursework and teaching assistantships (and experience) as structural impediments or distractions to their involvement in research. Students are potentially becoming self-socialised following their PhD studies to see teaching as a minor activity compared to research, which may affect those who will end up in academic jobs and add more tensions to the known teaching-research nexus. Furthermore, many mainland-based interviewees noted that their supervisors sometimes dissuaded them from doing teaching assistantships to focus on research. One participant articulated,
‘From the perspective of supervisors, PhD students already have a tight schedule; they won’t understand why you waste time doing teaching assistantship because it isn’t helpful to your research. Doing chores or grading homework for undergraduates interrupts your research; its only value is to earn that chicken feed.’
Heightened competition over positional publications
Finally, for the network strand, placing publications as the central goal led students to see supervisors essentially as publishing facilitators, deem peers as competitors, rather than collaborators, and reduce involvement with external stakeholders (e.g., internships and university-industry collaborative research projects). Twenty-two interviewees implicitly blamed their inability to have a ‘decent’ publication profile on their supervisor, even when the supervisor was offering help and constructive criticism. Almost two-thirds of the interviewees felt pressured because of feeling that they had been surpassed by peers, whom they regarded as competitors in the academic job market, in terms of publication numbers. For example, one student confessed,
‘Domestic scientific research is growing fast. Doing research is like sailing against the current: if you don’t keep publishing, you’ll be inferior to your domestic counterparts. So, it’s hard.’
This mentality led doctoral students to feel stressed and work ‘extra-time’ to close the gap, sometimes leading to situations of extreme-stress and exhaustion. Almost no interviewees reported initiating peer-to-peer research collaboration, and some attributed this phenomenon to the overemphasis that Chinese universities place on the first authorship when it comes to academic recruitment.
Although we maximised the sampling variation by having interviewees from many disciplinary fields and areas, our analysis did not yield substantial differences by learning environments and disciplines, except that science and engineering students with firm academic aspirations tend to prioritise publishing more than those in other disciplines. The homogeneity in our findings suggests that the same publication obsession seems to dominate across disciplines in all three jurisdictions.
Through our research, we are not criticising publishing during the doctorate, nor the PhD students, since they are simply responding to what they perceive is the most crucial requirement to obtain a job in academia and in a reputable university. In other words, their behaviour is a response to an incentive or requirement as they perceive it, and the issue is with this requirement. In the case of mainland China, this relates to the central importance that university recruitment places on publication numbers (and related metrics), when these recruitment criteria should probably be broader and attentive to other competencies that may lead to the formation of more well-rounded academics.
We suggest that, in recruiting and evaluating academics, policymakers and universities should consider recognising forms of scholarly contribution other than publication and giving them appropriate weight. A more comprehensive evaluation of candidates’ abilities and potentials should replace a more simplistic form mostly based on publication metrics. In China, policymakers seem to be concerned with this, and China’s reform to ‘reverse the one-sided, excessive, and distorted use of (journal-based) indicators in research evaluation’ may help to change the current ‘publish or perish’ obsession among PhD students, but universities and recruitment committees have a central role and say in changing the current culture.
This post is based on the authors co-authored paper Nothing but publishing: the overriding goal of PhD students in mainland China, Hong Kong, and Macau, published in Studies in Higher Education.
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