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Publish to Perish

Updated: Jun 16, 2021

If you are a true lover of an actual coffee that is not adulterated with sugar and milk or cream, and somebody tells you he or she also likes caramel or vanilla latte as coffee, please grit your teeth and forgive for the sake of evolution if someone does not know the definition of coffee. This analogy of coffee here is to relate to a very important point of doing research. I feel sometimes the same, putting myself in the shoe of the big giants or researchers, when I read the recent articles or listen to most of the talks in the most reputed journals and conferences respectively. The researchers of the 21st century have modified the definition of novelty or breakthrough accordingly, similar to the improvisation in coffee, as it is very crucial that all of us must come up with an actual breakthrough idea to publish a paper, to defend a Ph.D., to give a keynote talk at some domestic or international meetings, or for heaven sake, to get million-dollar funding. The slogan of “publish or perish” making us all increase international garbage—of course with minimum typing or grammatical mistakes—without realizing this may let you perish. Notwithstanding the uniqueness of the modern research environment which is harvesting a new culture that may benefit the generations to come, some cases can prove the thesis that the benefits of publishing in the name of novelty pales in if we compare the damage it has been doing.

Can a reputed journal like “Nature” or “Science” be fooled to publish something fraudulent or fabricated? The answer may not be in negation as editors and reviewers are humans with the capacity to be deceived. Nevertheless, what if I ask the same question that how many times these journals can be deceived: the most generous guess may not exceed the number of five. Jan Hendrik Schön, a German physicist, published nine times in “Science”, seven times in “Nature”, six times in “Physical Reviews”, four times in “Applied Physics Letters” and two times in “Advanced Materials”. He contributed all these papers as the first author, in roughly just three years. Hallelujah!! All of his papers are withdrawn because the results were not reproducible. His co-authors were exonerated when the case was in court and he was solely responsible for his misdeeds; however, I am very sure none of them was concerned while submitting the manuscripts. This case, in my opinion, does not question only the integrity of Dr. Schon, but of the system we are relying upon, to evaluate our research outputs.

The aforementioned case of Schon Scandal is the one was unfortunate to be exposed, nonetheless, there are numerous need to be investigated thoroughly. Is it just a coincidence that some groups are obligated to be in every big paper, or ideas only land in those groups, or in actual you need a VETO name to ease the process of publications, I think the latter case is true? Let us assume it is fair, and we may subscribe to the idea of collaboration or inner peer- review, however, it is extremely difficult to collaborate with them unless you have some high computing facility, a million-dollar funding, a fancy and state-of-the-art lab, or you are heading a domestic society and rich enough to call those big giants on international trips for free, in the name of conference-trip. Does this help you to rely on a big name, big groups, and big papers? The dream of aspiring for a career in academia, in my case, is fading away.

Professor Sasai, a Japanese professor, committed suicide, most probably because his student Haruko Obokata fabricated the results and published a simplistically easy way to generate stem cells using “Stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency”. In laymen's words, it is a process that can convert any type of cells to stem cells. She was a part-time student at Harvard where she did this work and published it in “Nature’. She accepted that her efforts were insufficient and different results were due to unskillfulness. Again, I am very generous to accept this excuse, while keeping in mind the repute of Harvard, and Japanese research integrity. She got caught because she challenged a major and real problem scientists were facing and people readily tried her method to duplicate the results. On the contrary, finding a specific pattern in something very pointless using million-dollar equipment, making Nano-human that can fly in the water and can only be observed with the state-of-art facility only that group owns, or getting a remarkable property in something by using tons of a rare and expensive element, or modifying a model from 1950s to the need of the hour and correcting it to 1 decimal point, or, to be honest, I can open publisher website and mock all day of such valuable researches, is it all worth doing? I, another time, with my humble opinion, think not in favor of wasting my life in doing something that contributes almost nothing to the life of others.

Publishing is like keeping a status in academia. If you publish regularly, specifically in the reputed, journals, it is like you buy every new model of BMW, Audi, or Tesla, or have the hobby of collecting sports cars. Only a few can afford this hobby, many suffer all their lives in inferiority complex. The system of hiring or promoting someone in academia is based on the above-mentioned status. I have known some most respected people in my life who said no to such a rotten system of “publish or perish” and devoted all their lives to educate the public of developing country like Pakistan; however, they could not be promoted to higher post as they could not meet the so-called publication criteria. It is a race similar to the one people doing in real life so that they can have a better car than the neighbors’, or a bigger house than the neighbors’, not bothering with the source of income. How you will feel if you have to excel in such a system? I feel terrible, frightened, and funny too.

In a nutshell, what should I do in my Ph.D. and career, when I have just maligned the name of research? I stayed silent, however, about the community working on something fundamental, based on sound mathematical grounds, or constitutive laws. I, certainly, do not mean working on the commercially available package or software that can make some dazzling contours for you, and hallucinating animations, based on some well-studied partial differential equations; these are very similar to real-life experimentalists' work. Nonetheless, the former case does inspire young researchers like me. Ahh! Considering the education system I grew up in, and the courses I took all my life, I wish to say the Al-Pacino lines that “I’d show you, but I'm too old, I'm too tired, I'm too f***ing blind”.

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