Publish or impoverish: the new academic struggle

Staying motivated and focused in graduate school it is not an easy task, and in my recent blogs (here, here, and here) I shared tips and resources I use to survive graduate school. But, there is a far more powerful and enticing incentive to stay motivated-MONEY! It is of course welcomed in most scientific research (lab consumables, technical services, glassware…) and paying hard-working graduate students 😉 , but here I will discuss a more sinister and insidious aspect of money — when it is used to ‘motivate’ scientist to publish. I would like to preface this blog by stating that the thoughts and opinions expressed here are neither a condemnation nor an endorsement — that judgement I leave to you.

The route to academic success and tenure is paved with

 the blood, sweat, and tears of newly appointed faculty members. In most countries, a new assistant professor (the equivalent of a senior lecturer in South Africa) is hired on a probation basis and after a set time (5-7 years) there is an evaluation. Then, depending on certain factors (number of students, external funding acquired, collaborators, and published articles) a judgement would then be made to either terminate or give tenure to the

 person. This story focuses on the last issue — published articles. Now, all journals are not created equal and some have a higher impact factor(IF), and a publication in a high IF journals like such as: Nature, Science, Cell, and The Lancet usually guarantees tenure.

An article published in Science a few weeks ago sent shockwaves through the academic world when it revealed that most countries, notably China, Arab states, and South Africa where paying academics for publishing. However, this payment system opens a Pandora’s box- how much of the scientists’ publishing is fueled by greed and the need to enrich themselves? Will proper scientific conduct be upheld in order for academics to enrich themselves? How sustainable is this system in developing future scientists? Now, these questions are not without merit. In countries where this system has been put in place, there have been recorded occurrences of scientific misconduct (such as data manipulation, unethical experiments). No, I’m not saying that financial incentives always lead to misconduct, as unethical science occurs in “unpaid” systems too. But attaching a monetary value to an article certainly can nudge some to take that extra step towards cheating, if you were ever so inclined…payment


In South Africa, the rise up the academic ladder is contingent on multiple factors, publications being one of them. Primarily, most researchers in South Africa all seek the coveted NRF rating, and this has a great impact on the progress up the academic ladder. Your rating is strongly related to the number and quality of publications you’ve produced. Fair enough. But there is also a cash incentive system, which – in most cases – purely counts the number of publications (quality matters little).

A recent report highlighted that the ‘cash for publication’ system has led to increased research output at Stellenbosch University and North West University. Although both institutions state that it is “not all about money” they attribute the increased number of publications in international journals to the system. Of course, there are universities that do not provide these direct cash incentives (the University of Cape Town and the University of Witwatersrand, for example) and they have seen increases in research output, particularly publications in international journals. But the institutions that believe in the cash incentive system argue that it’s sometimes just the little shove that their academics and students need to take the extra step. After all, would you not be motivated to turn that minuscule little Honours thesis into a proper publication if it could get you some extra research money? Research (especially student-led research) may, therefore, become peer reviewed and published because of that extra financial lure.

For me, a report published by Prof. Catriona Macleod of Rhodes University (another university that does not offer these direct cash incentives) in South Africa perfectly echoes my sentiments on the matter. In it, she highlights three points of the incentive system that seem to be counterproductive, that is, 1) it leads to what she termed “salami-slicing” research, where instead of publishing a comprehensive paper there is an incentive to split that paper into several papers, 2) it discourages collaborations, as the money is shared equally between authors (more collaborators = less money), and 3) there is no distinction made between high IF journals and low IF journals. The tough call for many SA researchers is therefore that the cash incentive system works directly opposite to the prestige and career rewards associated with the NRF rating system (which focuses on quality, collaborations, and international recognition).

Admittedly, every researcher has their own motives for doing science and those would dictate their career trajectory. What keeps you motivated? What aspirations keep you in science?

Aberration through contemplation

After eighteen hours of travel, from OR Tambo to Atlanta Georgia, then to Boston, the American dream had finally begun for me. That pounding heart and those sweaty palms, although still present, had dissipated a tad.

The first leg of my voyage started with a week of orientation in Boston. There I met other Fulbright students from all over the world, about sixty of us representing forty-three countries, leading to a remarkable diversity in both thought and culture. What none of us realized until then, was the tremendous obligations bestowed upon us, through this fellowship. Not only to learn, but returning to our homelands to implement our new insights and discoveries.

Sight-seeing with other Fulbrighters

Something prodigious already struck me in this first week of being in the USA. Something you don’t realize just from watching Hollywood movies or CNN. I noticed stark differences in the mentality of lecturers in the States versus South Africa. In our own context, universities are mainly focused on providing students – those who can afford it, might I add – with the opportunity to get formal education, which may or may not result in getting a job. Our primary focus is not to engage students on a personal level, or for them to know that they too have a role to play in the bigger scheme of things.

We need to ask ourselves how we plan on building a self-sufficient base of individuals who are also driven to make their communities better. Only a few people have the opportunity to engage in “higher” learning, which really should teach us how to achieve a higher purpose. This is vital, as multitudes of our fellow country women and men are suffocating in poverty and the only way out is to work, with the sole purpose of fending for their families. This breaks my heart because we as a society, while drenched in the inequalities of the past, have no vision of making the ubuntu dream come into being. We all strive to better ourselves instead of working collectively to foster social change.

Boston at night (from work mac).jpg
Boston at night

This attitude towards education (basic and higher) appears to be very different in the USA. While having discussions with professors from Suffolk University, I was pleasantly surprised at the number of public schools and universities in Boston. Even more so at these professors’ attitudes toward them.  They are pro public and against private tuition. One of professors, who is with child, expressed her desire for her child to be in a public school, a consequence of their reputable high standard and quality of education, but also the possibility of them interacting with children from all walks of life. I was shocked to find out that these schools are free and funded through the taxes paid by the community. Just imagine if that were the case in South Africa!!! The possibilities of the policies laid out post 1994 would be fruitful!

Right now the “South-African dream” seems to be very self-centered: making more money, being wealthy, living in suburbs, at the detriment of others. While all these luxuries may be comfortable, how many children go without even realizing their dreams? We recently heard from Stats SA how 55% of young people are without jobs. While we campaign for them to start their own businesses, are we equipping them with the necessary skills? During my time in Boston I learned of a community outreach program stemming from the university, called Future Chefs. It was created to assist in the development of young people, who will and have become independent and engaged citizens. The passion expressed by the young chefs, products of this program, reverberated amongst us and gave me a different perspective. How do we as South Africa create such opportunities?20819127_1642012392498853_4824833003063238556_o.jpg

Unless we create hope, the future will always seem bleak for our people. We must take it upon ourselves to ensure that we change lives, no matter how small that change may be. While social grants may be good and well, these do not equip people with the skills they need to become better versed in making themselves more productive. Until we change our mindset on how to better people’s lives, we have failed to be what we have sought to become. Our young democracy must be nurtured, and so must its people. A new fire burns within me, to ensure that I make a difference in my society. It doesn’t help to be successful alone while many people suffer in silence. We must make this democracy become a reality. It may not be today, but we can learn from other nations and restructure our thinking. Money may make the world go around but knowledge and skills will sustain us forever.