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?

Into the chasm…

I find myself staring into space, my mind is racing and my heart’s pumping fast. That may sound like a heart attack or a panic attack, but not today.

Over a year ago I implemented my own advice, which included broadening my horizons and investing in my growth, both personally and professionally. I decided to apply for a particular scholarship. So I signed up online and began the application process… A few weeks later I received a call, letting me know that I had been shortlisted for an interview. I was overjoyed, but I certainly felt my heart cringe at the thought of being bombarded with questions that I didn’t know or couldn’t possibly answer. Luckily, I could do some online research, scouting out the historical significance of the scholarship and even getting in touch with a previous recipient of this scholarship.  This detective work made a huge difference!

The interview came, a day after my birthday, and I felt Einstein enveloping me in relativity! That was probably the longest 30 minutes I have ever experienced!! Then came the dreaded DON’T CALL US, WE WILL CALL YOU line!! And then I just had to wait.

I made it to the next rung on the ladder! And to my horror, I had to write a set of exams that would determine which university you would best fit into. Imagine how I must have felt lol, not having written an exam in eons – and suddenly I had to prepare for one at short notice. I had less than 30 days to revise a mixture of high school and university syllabi! The nerves had me!

Well… to cut a long story short, a year later, I am packing up my life and embarking on a new journey along with eleven young women and men. We are all recipients of the Fulbright Scholarship (2017), and we are heading to the United States of America. With that, the next time I write a blog, it will be 13 020 km from home. It is my hope that I can share this experience with you, so you can also see the world through my eyes. Although change can sometimes be difficult, it often becomes a necessity in order to metamorphose.

Fulbrighters 2017
Fulbrighters FTW!