Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Publishing or perishing 2

Or, big trouble in little USyd.

In a previous post, I discussed the principle of "Publish or perish". This phrase is a succinct way of saying that the most important metric by which an academic is judged, is their publication record: those who do not publish enough will not be valued as highly as those who publish more. Recent developments in Australian academia have made this literally true.

The University of Sydney is dismissing 100 academics who have not published at least four times in the last three years. Early career researchers are apparently exempt from this threshold, so it is only senior academics (presumably permanent staff members) who are at risk. In other words, they are in senior positions, yet they have not published, so they are perishing.

To put that number (four papers is three years) in perspective, I'm not a permanent staff member, yet in the last three years I've published fifteen times, and have more than a dozen publications in the pipeline (I expect to publish them this year). While I am currently full-time research, I have taught full-time in the past, yet I still managed to publish research. During my final year teaching, I published papers, was finishing my PhD, and taught / administered two undergrad courses. I got married that year, too.

The only thing that garners any sympathy from me is that claims are being made that late last year academic staff were told that an average publication rate of 0.8 per year (four papers in five years) would be satisfactory. If that is true, then management have moved the goal-posts, which strikes me as rather unfair. However, even when I was working as a post-doc at the University of Sydney, I was expected to produce at least two papers per year. In my current position, my target output is at least six per year (I got ten last year, and I'm on track to get twelve this year - the best way to meet a target, is to aim to exceed it). Did senior lecturers really think they could get away with less? "Publish or perish" is a very old saying.

Now, the University of Sydney is taking this action to make up for a massive short-fall in income (the exact reasons for this sudden short-fall are rather murky) but what would the effect be if this hard form of publish or perish were enforced more often at universities? It might have the effect of sweeping out those academics who have become complacent in their positions, or who are approaching the end of their academic careers (that is, they are no longer capable of performing research at the level required). This would in turn free up positions for younger staff, who are capable of producing publications, yet can't find permanent positions because they're being held by unproductive senior staff. Are there any other professions where those who do not perform, get to keep their jobs? Of course not. A major part of being an academic is publishing: if you're not publishing, you're not doing your job. If you're not doing your job, do you deserve to keep it?

On a humane level, I'm sorry for the people who are losing their jobs. But honestly, I wish this standard were applied at more universities.