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?

And so I write to you

By Yonela Z. Njisane

Social writing: Through this blog, I have been receiving very positive comments about my writing. Apparently I write so well, mmmh! I am flattered, really. I remember I used to get similar feedback in high school (Sehole Combine School) from the dialog stories/books I used to write… I wonder where they are now. At the time, the stories got a lot of attention from all the different social groups residing in the boarding premises.
Even my tutor from the S.A. Writers College has been really impressed with my writing on the tasks they’ve been requesting for a blog-writing course. “Your writing is great and fresh and original, I love your stories” she says. I have been enjoying all the praise, I must say ☺. With all this positive reinforcement, I really should have no writing “issues.” However…
Scientific writing: I can’t say the same about my scientific writing skills; it’s been a nightmare. Ever wrote something and felt “Yeah! I nailed it,” only to find out that you didn’t? LOL, at least not as great as you thought. Yup! That’s the story of my life. You see, I can strip down someone else’s document and suggest this and that to improve it, but it seems I am failing when it comes to my own.

Maybe if I cleared my desk, things would get better...
Maybe if I cleared my desk, things would get better…

I have been trying to write a publishable review paper for almost two years now and my supervisor is not pleased at all. I am not too happy with myself either, and I am not taking it well. How could I take this long with a single paper? ☹ You would think reviewing literature is the easiest thing to do; I mean, you are supposed to just be analysing information that has been generated over the years: everything is there already. Or not, since you are actively trying to identify a sensible gap.
I honestly think it’s the most challenging type of paper to write, and yet has the most potential to boost your research profile once it’s out there. Everybody reads and cites review papers! But rejections and vague, mysterious comments by anonymous reviewers are not helping me with this. Exposing yourself to criticism is part of the job, but it’s so hard to go back to a manuscript after your masterwork has been rejected. It makes me feel like a complete failure and trust me, I know that is a very bad way to respond to the challenge.

Or maybe if I get out of my comfort zone and allow Mother Nature to speak to me while I’m at it...
Or maybe if I get out of my comfort zone and allow Mother Nature to speak to me while I’m at it…

I am even considering putting it aside and concentrate on writing the experimental papers instead; maybe I will get inspiration afterwards. There are four of them and each of them individually includes an Introduction, Materials and Methods, Results and Discussion, Conclusion and list of references. I even have an unfinished experiment from lab work. Maybe I should do all that so long — get something done in the little time that’s left to me.
However, a wise man once told me that publishing a review as early as possible at PhD level is more like building your thesis on solid ground. I think it was something along those lines. Don’t forget, it can’t be just any old publication, but a world class paper that will be suitable for a high impact factor journal. I mean this is where you prove yourself as a scientist, right? And we all want a bigger RG score (ResearchGate) through citations and contributions.

I don't think I like my desk this way, makes me feel empty. Maybe I'll just stick to my mess...
I don’t think I like my desk this way, makes me feel empty. Maybe I’ll just stick to my mess…

I guess it’s time I pull up my socks, stretch them out if I have to and learn every trick in the book on how to overcome this review threat. That “finding your motivation or inspiration” I spoke about last month must now come to the rescue. “Njisane et al., 2016″ suits me, right? ☺ I know hahaha! If you have any trick for me, please don’t be shy to share (I promise to read them VERY quickly before returning to my scientific writing).