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?

Life lessons from the laboratory (and beyond)

By Ruenda Loots

It’s that soul-searching, what-have-I-done-with-my-life time of the year. This year it feels more gut-wrenching than usual because 2015 was…unusual. A “not according to plan” year: not only for a struggling PhD student but for our universities, our country and the world. I still don’t have it all figured out but I have tried to extract some value from the chaos of this year.

#FeesMustFall (Picture: Anthony Molyneaux/EWN).


Science in a time of load shedding

Remember earlier this year, when you would get up, brush your teeth and check the daily load shedding schedule? Although it’s a vague memory by now (and a false sense of ease), there was a time when our experimental planning was determined by Eskom. Yes, we complained when it happened but, like true South Africans, we ultimately made the best of the situation (“Power’s out – let’s go grab a beer!”). And, of course, we found ways of laughing during the disasters.

candlesIrregular power supply, slow internet, limited equipment, expensive orders and looooong delivery delays – practicing science in South Africa has its challenges. But this makes us a more resilient breed of researcher. Appreciate the challenges as opportunities to think outside the box (especially over a beer with your colleagues in the dark).


Because when you think about the challenges of doing post-graduate research, you should remind yourself how lucky you are to experience those challenges. The #FeesMustFall protests this year have been a chilling demonstration that tertiary education remains an elusive privilege in our country.
As I reflect on my journey, I am humbled by and deeply grateful for the sacrifices of my family, each tax payer’s contribution to my bursaries and for supervisors who complete tedious funding forms. I am incredibly privileged to have studied at a world-class university under the guidance of renowned scientists.
The only way I know to show this gratitude is to be a mindful citizen who participates in real issues that affect those around me. I intend to share my knowledge, skills and resources as much as I can, for as long as I can, in this beautiful, evolving country.

When Life Happens

Because this is the country I want to raise my children in. When I decided to go take on this degree, I promised myself that I would not put my life on hold for the sake of research. So during my PhD I have worked part-time, taken other courses, married my best friend, took on grownup things like paying taxes, blogged about doing a PhD, adopted two puppies…and started a family.
As I write this last blog (and the last chapter of my thesis), I can feel my daughter’s heel kicking my ribs, like she’s reminding me of the two looming deadlines: finish the thesis & give birth. I’m not entirely sure which one is more painful, but I am grateful that I get to experience both of these life-changing opportunities.


Like the bacterial biofilms I’ve been studying for five years, my research has taught me the importance of adapting to changing conditions and evolving to survive. Completing a thesis has taught me perseverance and patience. And parenthood is teaching me…every day.