With the end of the year also comes the fall graduation season. For graduate students, that could mean the end to a very long span of time spent in academia. In the U.S., a doctoral degree can take between four to seven or more years to complete on average. For a STEM student, that timeline can be broken down into one to two years of discipline specific coursework, finding a dissertation advisor, and formulating a dissertation project, as well as three to seven years of mentored research in which they work with research assistants, write their dissertation, and defend it.
Included in this timeframe, though not at an official scale, is an immense amount of pressure for Ph.D. students to publish their work. The term “publish or perish” is often referenced in the world of academia to describe the harsh reality that unless you have a published paper, ideally several, you risk your future in the industry or your academic career. Not publishing papers or having fewer publications than your peers puts a strain on potential job opportunities that require a doctoral degree. According to the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics (NCES), the percentage of STEM Ph.D. students that are able to secure a tenure track position within 5 years of graduation is decreasing rapidly from 25.9% in 2008 to 17.7% in 2015.
Additionally, this pressure to publish by any means possible has led to unethical practices becoming more commonplace as new scientific journals are created. An example of this is an increase in duplicate publication, where an individual submits the same paper to multiple journals while changing the captions, keywords, and co-author name in order to dodge plagiarism trackers and boost their CV. Other issues such as plagiarism and fraud are also occurring more often, and in the case of medical journals, this could be directly harmful to the health of groups or individuals.
Financial strain also plays a major role in the increase in unethical practices, as most journals do not pay authors for the papers of research they produce. In certain fields, obtaining meaningful results and formatting that data into a publishable paper is a process that can take years, during which a researcher must support themselves and their work through their university. After a paper is successfully completed, it has a high chance of rejection, which would result in those years of effort being rendered virtually invisible to any potential employers. If the paper is accepted for publication, often the researcher has spent a significant amount of their own time and money and receives no compensation for their work while the publisher turns a profit. In 2011, Elsevier, one of the top scientific and medical publishers, made $1.1 billion in profit, at a profit margin of 36%. In the past, the general understanding was that getting published provides a currency for a future career in a tenured position with higher pay, but as previously mentioned tenured positions are becoming scarcer. However, academic journals have not updated their practices to reflect this decline. As a result, universities are no longer able to afford paying for these subscriptions. In 2012, Harvard University claimed it could no longer pay the estimated $3.5 million a year for these journals. In 2019 the University of California broke ties to Elsevier in favor of open-source publication.
The common defense for journal publications is that they aid in the dissemination of scientific research and knowledge; however, most of the top journals require a subscription to access. While scholars are able to view these papers through their academic institutions’ paid subscriptions, those outside of academia cannot. In recent years, this has led to an increase in open-source publication. Open-source journals do not require payment to view articles, and enable authors to maintain the copyright to their work. However, the cost for publishing these articles instead falls on the author. For example, the standard publishing cost for the AIAA Aerospace Research Central is $2,400.
This is not simply an issue of operating costs and the willingness of researchers to work; it is a complex socioeconomic problem that bars financially struggling individuals from achieving success in the academic world. Even in the case of open-source publication, those struggling under financial hardships are able to view research papers, but are unable to pay to publish any works of their own. Why is it that in academia, it is acceptable for authors to not be compensated for the work that they do, but also be forced to pay others to share their knowledge? It is hard to imagine this sort of double standard existing in any other industry, and largely only exists due to precedent. There are already significant financial barriers in the pursuit of education, and additional barriers such as publication costs only slows the progress of scientific research and understanding.