The Altar of Academic Overproduction

Do publications define someone as an academic success? More to the point, do publications demonstrate one’s potential for scholarship?

These are both pressing questions for contingent faculty members who almost never have research as part of their contract and yet are assessed on their potential for research when being considered for tenure-track jobs. I have written here several times how I approached my research as a second job, though my current position allows me to integrate teaching and research even though the latter is not technically part of my contract.

With this in mind, one might ask when is the right time to publish. Job ads generally look for the potential for high-impact publishing, which should certainly include promising graduate students who have yet to publish anything, but it also might mean that because I just published my dissertation book and work on teaching contracts I might need to show some progress on my next book project before I’ll be seriously viable for research positions given that as soon as I am hired I am on a clock to finish the next thing or lose my job. My last book should prove that I can publish, but that track record is only good if it can support a trajectory toward future potential.

But the words that I often think about in those ads are “high impact.” These words mean different things to different people, and even more different things in different fields. When I was a newly-minted PhD my institution was just getting caught up with impact metrics, so it of course surprised me to learn that most history publications simply weren’t indexed at the institution. And probably for good reason. You can find impact metrics for classics journals, but this will only take you so far. According to one, the two journals with the two highest impact factors are Ancient Philosophy and the Journal of Roman Studies, neither of which are viable publication venues for my research, and I would dispute the quality of some of the other highly-ranked journals. This is not a field with Nature or The New England Journal of Medicine.

Moreover, I have heard differing opinions about when students ought to start publishing original research. I know of people who discourage junior graduate students from trying to publish prematurely. The work of publishing extend the time of completion for publications that might not move the needle in a job search at best, and, at worst, “immature” publications might attach the student’s name to subpar work. My advisor, by contrast, had me send off a revised version of a seminar paper as a second year MA student—a paper, I might add, that was duly rejected with a multi-page reviewer critique. I agreed with the rejection enough that I scrapped that paper and didn’t submit my own research again until I published a note with Classical Quarterly midway through my PhD that I had accepted with revisions upon first submission. I don’t personally subscribe a hard and fast rule, but, based on my own experiences, I generally think that students reach a point where their research is ready for publication later in graduate school than earlier.

Much like early-career graduate students, some undergraduates might have the command of both the primary evidence and scholarship to publish peer-reviewed scholarship and there are some fields where students can be sufficiently involved in research projects that their names end up on publications, but neither of these should be an expectation before graduate school. Learning how to do this work is literally one of the purposes of graduate school. Making admissions decisions based on these publications rewards students with structural advantages in their undergraduate institutions more than selecting students based on their research potential. No system will level the playing fields in this respect, but publications strikes me as a particularly insidious factor. Admittedly, I have not seen much evidence of this happening, but I am opposed to it in any field. Certainly, I would not have been admitted to graduate school if that were the expectation.

So you can imagine my reaction to this Pro Publica report on new companies like Scholar Launch designed to help get high school students published in “peer reviewed journals” by having them work with renowned scholars whose names are noticeably absent from the program forms that only list their academic rank and affiliation. All for the low, low fee of several thousand dollars.

The article opens with the story of a high school student who went through the program, a sophomore who explains that “Nowadays, having a publication is kind of a given.” Then comes a description of her project, a marketing strategy analysis for Chick-fil-A that was “published” on a journal’s online pre-print platform.

Schemes to get children into the “right” schools are nothing new, but I have to say that I prefer the old-fashioned grift like paying for a building or bribing the water polo coach to have your student be classified as a “recruit.” I find these programs much more insidious, by contrast. While those of us at most schools are hearing only bleak prognostications about the impending demographic cliff, the application numbers are soaring at the most elite schools, while only further fuels the aura of exclusivity. The result is programs like Scholar Launch that mask a pay-for-play system that rewards families with the means behind a cloak of merit all for a chance at getting access to the most elite schools.

In this arms race only the appearance of merit matters. Internships and educational opportunities are never going to be equally distributed, but I would never begrudge students legitimate opportunities for learning or engagement. After all, this is the premise behind taking a challenging course load and engaging in extra-curricular activities or internships. Publications, though, are fundamentally different from these other forms of engagement.

What is the point of a publication? Or, even more broadly, what is the point of writing?

To paraphrase Umberto Eco, the purpose of writing is to be read. Secondarily, to paraphrase John Warner, writing is a form of thinking. So you write to put your thoughts in order so that someone else may read them. Peer-reviewed academic articles are in their purest form a contribution to an ongoing discussion about a field of study. They are meant to be read, considered, and responded to by other people working or interested in the same field of study.

Whereas, the point of these publications is to be listed on the application, to give the appearance that your child has what it takes to “change the world” in some nebulous, ill-defined way because they were able to publish an article in high school. Who cares if anyone reads it? Or whether it is great? It was published in a “peer-reviewed” journal, which makes it sound substantial and scholarly, just like the journals that academics publish their work in. Never mind what “peer-reviewed” means for high school students or that these journals exist solely to showcase high school work.

I understand that both students and parents place an enormous importance on getting into the “right” school, by which they usually mean the most prestigious school that will unlock every door, but this attitude is deeply toxic. In addition to moving cycles of anxiety and burnout younger and younger, it internalizes two counter-productive ideas.

First, it underscores the false notion that students need to already have these skills and ideas. College, for instance, should be a time when students are developing many foundational skills. Setting an apparent expectation like this about what they should know creates an environment with heightened anxiety for students who think they’re behind frustration for students who discover a gap between what they think they know and how they perform in class.

Second is a sense that seeming is more important than being. If you seem smart or accomplished or charitable, then whether or not you are those things is almost besides the point. Obviously it is possible to wash out after gaining admission, but many of these systems are more set up to exclude people at the point of entry than to drive them out once they’re in. Thus being at the “right” school is more important than being at the school that will give you the best education. Besides, the former can be judge by the school’s prestige, while the latter can be hard to assess before you arrive on campus—or even until years after you graduate.

In truth, these paper mills are responding to a system that sacrifices at the altar of academic overproduction. A system that identifies publications as the highest virtue and often rewards short-term impact of ideas. And academic administration that would prefer to flatten the differences between fields so that the apples and oranges can be evenly judged as indistinct fruit pulp—how else can you compare scholars in one field where people write numerous co-authored publications based on lab work with those in a field where a productive scholar might put out a single sole-authored article a year and a book every few years? In this context it only to be expected that admissions officers might reward a student whose application shows that they already have a publication, irrespective of its topic or quality.

There is no easy panacea. These programs are a metastatic cancer that formed deep in how we assess academic success. But I also think that this makes it all the more important for people in a world increasingly defined by anxiety and burnout to collectively resist its acceleration. For academics to resist the cult of productivity, for students to focus on the process of learning over the appearance of achievement, for admissions officers to resist the allure of purchased credentials, and for numerous places in the wider culture to stop setting Harvard and other similarly exclusive schools as the benchmark for success in higher education.

Easier said than done.