Playing the Game, Publishing or Perishing in Higher Education

Academic publishing licensed CC by Gideon Burton

I recently read an article by David Colquhoun in the Guardian titled Publish-or-perish: Peer review and the corruption of science. It’s well worth reading but what struck me was how we have got to the ridiculous situation that we are currently in and the part that senior academic managers have played in directing us there.

Here is a little case study of how the drive to churn out ‘research’ publications has contributed to the decline of the academy. The story is completely true although the names have been changed to protect the guilty.

Several years ago I was unfortunate enough to meet a young academic who joined my institution from industry. He was, and probably still is, a skilled writer and a hard worker. That’s probably his entire list of positive attributes.

Let’s call  him Phil because it’s nice and short and easy to type. Phil arrived at my institution as lecturer on a mission, a mission he achieved spectacularly. Although still without his PhD he embarked on an apparently prolific writing spree and played what he, very openly, called the Game.

The objective of the Game is to produce as many publications as possible within the shortest period of time and achieve rapid promotion as a result whilst paying no attention to any of the other scholarly activities associated with working as an academic at a university.

Here are the four basic approaches to play the Game as described to me by Phil:

1. The Multiplier

Associate yourself with three or four similar academics, preferably at other institutions. Each writes a paper and puts all four names on it. Instantly one publication becomes four. OK you don’t a first authorship every time but it’s still an output on your resume.

2. The Rapid Data Gatherer

Find yourself another early career academic, maybe fresh from industry who is struggling through a research masters or PhD. They’ve got some data but they’re struggling to write it up. Offer to collaborate in producing publications. It’s a win win situation. They get some research output which helps them but you get access to their data. After all, you have to have some data based articles occasionally. You can’t keep churning out position papers all the time. Or can you…..

3. The Repeater

Publish the same basic paper in multiple journals with only slight variations in the content. There are so many disciplines that you can often put stuff into technically focussed journals and with a modicum of rewriting it can also go into a management journal and let’s not forget all of those regional journals that would love your paper.

4. The Avoider

On no account do anything else. Make sure you put minimal effort into your teaching and learning activities and never do any administration or community work. Remember that quality learning and teaching is worth nothing when it comes to promotion at a university.

Using these methods Phil produced close to a hundred ‘refereed’ papers in his first 18 months at the institution and achieved rapid promotion from lecturer to senior lecturer (still without his PhD) and doing minimal, and by all accounts, dreadful teaching.

Shortly afterwards he was made an Associate Professor and was the golden boy of the department whereupon, of course, he left to take up a Professorship at another institution. I still wonder whether the senior managers who promoted Phil so rapidly felt slightly used and cheapened at that point. Sadly I suspect not. They certainly should have.

Phil played the Game magnificently and was rewarded for it. Many years later I noticed an extensive newspaper article about him winning an award from some journal referencing database or other. Looking at his profile at his current employer I noticed with a smile that Phil no longer lists all of his publications. In fact he lists hardly any. But then, of course, why should he?

10 Comments On “Playing the Game, Publishing or Perishing in Higher Education”

  1. Indeed. You know my feelings on this already – hell in a handbasket etc etc. Have been reading recently about the ‘knowing-doing gap’ (, which, although a business concept in this instance, really highlights the fact that if the only holy grail we’re ever chasing is the A1/B1/C1/D1/E1 tick we run a very real risk of never actually doing anything because we’re too busy ‘knowing’ about it (ie producing publications).

    Damned if I know the solution, but I do know this little exchange has been more ‘scholarship’ than the last paper I wrote.


    • Thanks Sarah,

      It’s also interesting how we measure ‘impact’ almost exclusively in terms of citations in other journals. This may be appropriate in some disciplines but in, say, the professions wouldn’t changes to practice but much more useful. Of course that is exceptionally difficult to measure (just like teaching and learning and other scholarly activities) and universities are such unsophisticated organisations that they can’t really do anything else other than count things.


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  4. Thanks for disclosing ‘the rules of the Game’ Mark, now perhaps more people will recognise the Phony Phils as they make their way through ‘the System’. But sadly, it probably won’t stop Phil! Cheers.


  5. OK, but is it Phil’s ‘fault’? What is the criteria he is provided with by his institution: – to be a contributing employee/academic? – to submit/achieve promotion? – to win institution/igov’t/industry awards? – to get another job? If the criteria given is narrow enough to allow ppl to play ‘the game’ and then leave any additional work to altruistic-minded/dedicated/quality-driven people who fill in the gaps for the Phil’s (and for the sake of the institution), then perhaps something else needs fixing?


  6. Three things: first, trying to republish published material is not nearly as easy now we have google. Self-plagiarism (which this is) will get you banned from any reputable journal these days. Journal editors can and do use google.
    Second, there is definitely wrong with promotion procedure at an institution where someone can get credit for publications that are not his own. Like self-plagiarism, this is is academic dishonesty. Any promotions committee that accepts more than a reasonable number of publications in a time period without further question is not doing their job properly.
    Third, there wouldn’t be many disciplines now where you can get a permanent job without a PhD, let alone a promotion – there are so many people out there with PhDs who can’t get a job that you wouldn’t get a look in.

    Time has sorted out many of these anomalies – there are more, but I don’t think Phil’s path would get you to AssPro now.


  7. Thank you Mark for this crucial post! I believe you would enjoy an article
    Publishing and perishing: The critical importance
    of educational design research by Reeves, McKenney and Herrington

    Lately, as part of my own studies in instructional design, I’ve been reading many “peer reviewed” articles about e-learning. My favorite topic. It is as anyone can now write about it, actually say almost nothing about it, and bing!: get a journal article. Often I have to wonder, do I just think that some of those articles I’ve been reading are poor in academic achievement and rigor, or am I just too critical? 🙂


  8. Every fact is related on one side to sensation, and, on the other, to morals. The game of thought is, on the appearance of one of these two sides, to find the other: given the upper, to find the under side.
    Ralph Waldo Emerson


  9. I keep reading about academic misconduct and low-quality work published. However, another pervasive problem of this publish or perish culture is the suppression of new research that sheds additional light on or challenges widely accepted hypothesis. And worse yet, the low level of true and critical peer review that established scientists get on their work. I keep been scandalized by the kind of things they publish these days in Nature or Science, when the only merits the works in question seem to have is the fame of some of the authors. Shouldn’t peer review be fair an equal for all? Are we stimulating academic dishonesty by failing to criticize established people and raising the bar for everybody else? We encourage establish people to publish mediocre research and newcomers to exaggerate and mislead in their findings!


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