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?

Where to now?

It is my great pleasure to announce that I passed my MSc degree and will be graduating next year in May :-D. Pretty cool right? Having worked so much to acquire such a milestone has helped me to appreciate the work that goes in having a Master’s degree. In fact, it has shown me that people who have a Master’s degree should be treated with respect and that this degree should not be seen as a pit-stop towards getting the big one (PhD).

Talking about a PhD, whilst I was waiting for my MSc results, I had enough time to think about my PhD aspirations, my concept and whether having a PhD would have any positive contribution towards where I want to be in the next 5 years. To be honest, I still have no tangible solution towards this conundrum that I call my future. However, there is no debate that I one day want to be a young Dr Mabusela.

I would like to believe that I still have a lot that I can contribute towards the poultry nutrition field and I also believe that going on to do my PhD would provide that platform to contribute.

Earlier in the year, I wrote a blog about how research can be used as a tool to eradicate food insecurity in our country. This is what I want to do with my PhD, I want to be able to use it as a tool to improve the socio-economic status of South Africa through the development of effective agricultural practices. I want to look back in the next 10 years and feel like my PhD made a monumental contribution to not only the research field but also the poultry production value chain.

As I cogitate on my future prospects, I think about various debates that people often have with regards to the approach needed when looking to pursue a PhD. Some people have argued that going into industry and giving your PhD aspirations a break could possibly offer more insight with regards to developing a novel concept. They believe that understanding all the finer details of the poultry value chain would help understand fully the problems as well the type of research questions to ask when conducting your PhD trials.

For a greater part, I agree with that logic but however, it contradicts my main belief. I believe that our life is like a timeline and that everything has its own place in that timeline. If not done at the right time, then the chances of that working out are reduced exponentially, leading to a rip in the time and space continuum.  This fits in particularly well with the contribution that I think having a PhD would have towards my life, 5 years from now. If I do not continue with my PhD, then I might not get to where I want to be. Granted, I don’t know where that will be, but having a PhD at that time will assist me to access an array of careers.


Talking about confusion and future aspiration, so many people aren’t where they would like to be in life; many religious individuals are starting to believe that maybe God has turned his back on them. Whether that be true or false but I believe that just like seeds in the South African dry soils, we all have roles that we have to play in order to make sure that we have a good harvest in the following year. The problem is that, just like the seeds in the dry soils, greater forces will only allow us to sprout and grow into awesome harvests when the environment is conducive for that growth. The wait might appear to be counter-revolutionary but sprouting at the wrong time will most certainly lead to destruction. So in a seed shell, waiting, and controlling things you can control is the answer and have faith that when the time is right, greater forces will play their part.

The take home message is that things will happen when they happen and that’s something we have no control over. The best you can do is play your part, till those dry soils, plant those seeds and hope and pray that you’ve done enough to ensure that you get a good crop when the good rains come.