Should Grad Students Publish?

Two vastly different disciplines consider whether there are too many journal articles these days, and whether graduate student publishing is part of the problem. Some see that analysis as shortsighted.

August 23, 2017
 
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Doctorate, publication(s), postdoctoral fellowship, teaching experience: the list of common qualifications for a tenure-track academic job gets longer all the time.

Recently, though, the question of whether graduate students should be expected to publish has come up in two very different disciplines, renewing debate on the topic. While bans by journals on graduate student authors have some supporters, critics of so-called gatekeeping generally agree that it's a Band-Aid for larger structural problems within academe.

“In the past several years, the convention in philosophy of waiting to publish until after the Ph.D. has broken down,” J. David Velleman, a professor of philosophy at New York University, wrote in a guest post for the philosophy blog Daily Nous. “Graduate students now believe that they must publish in order to get a job, and most of them are right.”

The development, Velleman said, “is having many deleterious effects.” The volume of article submissions has “exploded,” to the tune of 500 to 600 per year to a single journal, he wrote, and attention to each submission has declined proportionately. In turn, he said, academics are less wiling to take risks on papers that might not immediately catch editors’ attention, leading to more “formulaic papers on safe topics.” Assistant professors are also in the “untenable position” of having to compete for journal space with graduate students if they want to be promoted, he said.

Graduate programs also feel the effects of the “publication emergency,” Velleman said, in that they’ll disfavor admitting students from outside fields who might not be able to start thinking about publishing right away. All students will experiment less with subdisciplines, in the interest of publishing, he added.

The overall effect? “Philosophers will become narrower and narrower -- well qualified, perhaps, to run the narrowed publication maze, but unequipped to open up new frontiers in the subject.”

Proposed Ban on Graduate Student Authors

To halt what he called “the arms race in graduate-student publication,” Velleman proposed two major policy changes: philosophy journals should refuse to publish work by graduate students, and philosophy departments should discount graduate student work in tenure and promotion reviews.

Anticipating criticism that some graduate student work is as good as any professor’s, Velleman wrote that if the work “is that good today, it will be even better in a few years,” and the author -- and the literature -- will benefit from the wait.

Velleman made clear that he was not speaking as a journal editor, but he does know the ins and outs of publication as an editor of Philosophers’ Imprint. And he guessed that journal editors would jump at the chance to cut their workload.

Publication, he said, “is not a right.”

Velleman wasn’t pointing out a new problem with publication in the humanities. Last year, for example, Neil Sinhababu, associate professor of philosophy at National University of Singapore, estimated in a widely read Daily Nous guest post that approximately 10,000 philosophy papers compete for just 2,000 journal slots each year.

Sinhababu, though, proposed creating more journal space -- not blocking graduate students from publishing. Velleman’s much more drastic proposal attracted hundreds of comments and other strong reactions from inside and outside philosophy.

“As a graduate student not going to NYU, without a single publication, how do I distinguish myself?” wrote one commenter. “What should postdoc and job committees rely on? Letters? Other than publications almost all other indications point purely at the reputation of the school you came from. Publications are supposed to be the great leveler.” (The student instead suggested an idea discussed in a third Daily Nous post by Jennifer Whiting, a professor of philosophy at the University of Pittsburgh: have personnel committees evaluate only a certain number of pages of an academic’s best work, to encourage quality in publishing over quantity.)

Other critics were more blunt.

“What the everlasting fuck is this nonsense?” Karen Kelsky, the academic career consultant and former tenured professor behind the blog The Professor Is In, wrote on Facebook. “This is #NotTheOnion.”

Doubting that there are any current assistant professors who earned their Ph.D.s before what she called the “publication imperative,” Kelsky mocked the idea that publication -- not a dearth of tenure-track jobs -- is philosophy’s “emergency.”

Kelsky said this week that she disagrees with some journal and conference policies limiting submissions from graduate students because “if the work is good, it should be published” or presented. Moreover, she said, graduate students haven’t had “a hope” on the academic job market within the past two decades without a peer-reviewed publication record, and they should thus “be supported in this longstanding professional imperative, not blocked.”

Tenured “gatekeepers” trying to police graduate students’ publishing chances “is really not a good look,” she added.

Elliott Shore, executive director of the Association of Research Libraries, also referred to proposals against graduate student publishing as “gatekeeping.” Shore said he’d never heard of a hard policy against Ph.D. candidates publishing but didn’t rule out there being unwritten traditions against it. And given the “state of the conversation about the future of higher education,” especially in the humanities, he merely speculated, some professors “might see their own students as rivals.”

Via email, Velleman stuck to his argument, which he said was specific to philosophy. Because philosophy is not studied in high school in the U.S., he said, undergraduates tend to take their first course in it only well into their studies. And while many of the greatest 20th-century philosophers actually majored in other fields, he said, admissions to Ph.D. programs in philosophy have since become “so competitive that only precociously professionalized applicants are accepted. That trend will only accelerate once graduate programs have to restrict their admissions to applicants who will be ready to publish in three or four years (as they will have to in order to ensure that they can place their graduates in academic jobs).”

The Case Against Gatekeeping

Many of Velleman’s arguments would apply to other humanities fields. But the graduate student publishing debate is playing out in the natural sciences, as well, as highlighted by a recent post by Neuroskeptic, a popular blogger for Discover magazine.

In the post, Neuroskeptic recalls being surprised that a new Journal of Neuroscience paper on statistical power in neuroscience hadn’t instead appeared in Nature Reviews Neuroscience. A little sleuthing revealed a backstory, according to the post: the paper’s senior author, Jonathan Rosier, a professor of neuroscience at University College of London, had publicly said that he and his research group were blocked from publishing in Nature Reviews Neuroscience. Why? In part because the paper’s lead author, Camilla Nord, was still a Ph.D. candidate, Rosier said.

Spokespeople for Nature told Neuroskeptic and Inside Higher Ed the same thing: that there is no policy against graduate student authors.

In any case, is such a policy reasonable? Neuroskeptic asked. “I don’t think so, although I can see why [Reviews] might have found it attractive. You see, Ph.D. students have a habit of writing review papers. This is because most students have to write a literature review, which serves as the introduction to their Ph.D. thesis, and this material can easily be converted into a review paper. These reviews are generally not overly insightful.”

If that’s so, “it’s understandable, but still unfair,” Neuroskeptic wrote. “It’s the job of a journal to judge submissions on their merits. Also, if this was what happened, Nord et al.’s paper should have been a clear exception to the rule, as it wasn’t a literature review but rather a meta-analysis.”

Like the humanities, the natural sciences are experiencing a publication explosion, with some negative implications for research quality. Daniel Sarewitz, a professor of science and society at Arizona State University, wrote a column last year for Nature, for example, imploring fellow scientists to "publish less, and less often" -- lest science’s reproducibility problem grow.

“Mainstream scientific leaders increasingly accept that large bodies of published research are unreliable,” he wrote. “But what seems to have escaped general notice is a destructive feedback between the production of poor-quality science, the responsibility to cite previous work and the compulsion to publish.”

But who should bear the career risks of publishing less, and less often? Responding to Sarewitz’s post, Gary McDowell, executive director of the Future of Research, and his colleague, Jessica Polka, wrote in Nature that in today’s “competitive arena, asking this of scientists -- particularly junior ones -- is to ask them to fall on their swords.”

Publishing less, they said, “is not a feasible or responsible way to improve data quality. This would be better achieved by increasing the transparency of peer review and by introducing alternative metrics as indicators of reproducibility. Science's goal is to share as much information as possible -- not to withhold it.”

McDowell said last week that “if you're an expert in your field and your submission merits publication, then it shouldn't matter what rank you are.” To say otherwise, he said, echoing Kelsky and Shore, “is just gatekeeping.”

While McDowell admitted that submission volume is frustrating (he nevertheless noted that the concept of “information overload” dates back to antiquity), he said more trainees necessarily means more publications.

“If you want fewer trainees publishing papers, either have fewer of them, or stop measuring them on publications,” so that they only publish what advances the question under consideration, and not their careers, he said.

At the same time, McDowell added, negative studies and small data sets that don’t get published may be relevant to someone else’s work, “so we should actually be publishing more of what we do, not less, and finding ways of curating that information more effectively.”

Quality, Not Quantity

Philip Cohen, a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland at College Park, said he’d never heard of a journal policy against graduate student authors. There’s still a lot that is wrong with academic publishing, however, he said, "including the pressure to publish more in order to get jobs or get promoted, and the proliferation of academic journals" -- all of which has "rolled downhill onto graduate students."

In sociology, he said, one result is the serious problem of “salami slicing.” That’s researchers producing the narrowest possible publishable unit of work, “to maximize the number of CV lines, rather than produce fewer works that are more comprehensive, more important and more useful to the field.”

The solution, though, is not to impose “status requirements” on publications, Cohen said. That would only “reify our already unhealthy obsession with status hierarchy, which is already too often used as an alternative to real quality assessment.”

What instead?

“Let's just stipulate that anyone can publish anything and even publish it in a journal that describes itself as peer reviewed," so a publication doesn't count for anything in and of itself, Cohen said. “Then let's ask, ‘Is this work good?’ That will require actually reading it and using our expertise to make judgment about it, which is our job.”

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