Publications are commonly used to evaluate PhD students’ aptitude and have the appeal of a single, ‘objective’ measure. A collection of World Views in this issue, however, suggests that this creates only an illusion of true meritocracy. Not only assessments but PhD training per se require substantive improvements to benefit science and scientists.
PhDs under publication pressure
Regardless of country and discipline, publications are an expectation – if not a requirement – to obtain a PhD. In this Focus issue, PhD students, academics and external stakeholders describe how this focus on publications leads to both, detrimental consequences but also benefits, for individuals and the scientific community. The 28 varied contributions include clear calls for future improvements of the system of support, training, and assessment of PhD students. The discussion is amplified with more contributions on the Behavioural and Social Science community forum.
The pressure to outperform others can gradually lead PhD students to believe their academic achievements define who they are, argues PhD student Toby Bartle; he calls on his peers to focus on learning—not achievement—and never lose track of their identities.
Deepshikha Chatterjee, an Assistant Professor in Organisational Psychology, argues that noncitizen scientists in the US are structurally disadvantaged in a system that offers them fewer opportunities in training but later measures them against their citizen peers as if both groups had started on a level playing field.
Based on her interviews with senior academics, Taya Collyer, a PhD student in health research, reflects on how academic evaluation that values quantity over quality pervasively harms the scientific endeavour, leading even successful academics to retrospectively question research decisions.
Publications are often considered a hard currency for evaluating PhD students by graduation committees and funders alike. Anne-Marie Coriat of the Wellcome Trust calls for a change in how PhDs are assessed, placing more emphasis on other aspects of training.
PhD students produce more than publications; they create a wealth of resources as a means to their research. Matt Crump, Associate Professor at the City University of New York, argues that PhDs should share these resources as portfolios that demonstrate their skills and to benefit the scientific community.
Each route to graduation is an individual journey. Friedrich M. Götz, a PhD student in Psychology, argues that there are no ready-made recipes or silver bullets for success. While publications are important, the stress of producing them should not overshadow the joys of the journey.
Hannah Hobson, a Lecturer at the University of York, published a Registered Report as part of her PhD and explains how this decision took the stress out of publication and brought the joy back into data collection.
Many PhD students have no intention of remaining in academia, and outdated university curricula do them a disservice by not offering training for careers in industry, argues Kyle Isaacson, a PhD student in biomedical engineering.
A monograph is an entirely outdated requirement in an age when publications and presentations are used as a measure of PhD students’ performance in all other settings, argues Mark Martin Jensen, a PhD student in Biomedical Engineering. It’s time to replace dissertations with something useful.
Brazil’s university landscape has undergone dramatic changes in recent decades, leading to increased pressure to publish despite stripped resources. Elisa Jordão argues that this makes it all the more important to educate the public about the value of scientific research and education.
Unless science-communication is valued as much as journal articles, fundamentally important scientific insights, for example, on climate change, will not reach the people that are most affected, argues Abhishek Kar.
A culture of publication-worship unwittingly incentivizes questionable scientific practices and gluts the economy of scientific papers, argues Ava Kiai. To protect trust in science, we must focus on methodological rigour, rather than publishability.
Graduate students suffer from publication fever, the all-encompassing feeling that they need to publish at all costs, argues Michel Landgrave. This single-minded focus puts them at risk of exploitation and increases hostility among peers. But great mentorship offers a way out.
The pressure to publish during PhD training is only the beginning of a career in an environment that places intractable expectations on academics, argues Jennifer Lavers, a Lecturer in Marine Science; unrealistic demands to excel in publications, grants and outreach lead even outwardly successful academics to question their career choices.
Comparing the experiences of students at Menzies Institute, PhD student Fan Li reflects on the importance of publications across disciplines, but argues that these should not detract from the benefits of PhD training.
Recent changes in China’s research infrastructure have led to a rapid acceleration of the scientific process and increased pressure on all involved, argues Xiaopeng Li. The number of PhD graduates exceeds positions, and only structural innovations will ensure that PhDs can build careers in new sectors.
Young scientists are deterred from conducting pivotal science on topics essential to societal progress by the pressure to publish in high-tier journals that neglect and marginalise these issues, argue Marginalia Science, a group dedicated to further scientific diversity.
Mandating publications for graduation places a poor metric on PhD students’ skills and has detrimental effects on PhD training, argues Sharif Moradi, an Assistant Professor at the Royan Institute in Tehran; committees and future employers should focus on the many other skills that PhD students master.
Priti Mulimani, a health-care professional and PhD student, highlights how pressure to publish in high-impact journals that are biased towards research on Western populations obstructs pivotal research on the majority of the world’s population.
The pressure for scholarly publications creates a culture of knowledge silos, argues postdoctoral Fellow Sandra Obradović. If young researchers were also taught to explain research to a general audience, this would not only help their careers, but also bring science into society.
The Max Planck Society represents a unique place for principal investigators, but its benefits are not necessarily reaped by the students, argue the Max Planck PhDnet Survey Group. Policy changes, however, could alleviate publication and other pressures for students.
Many PhD students are enthusiastic about robust scientific practices, but afraid that ‘doing good science’ will jeopardize their chances on the job market, argues Felix Schönbrodt, Managing Director of the LMU Open Science Center. Aligning incentives and preparing students for a job market that values contributions to Open Science will be key.
The need to publish should not lead to despair. Based on her personal experiences of great mentorship, bioethicist Anke Snoek argues that early, supervised involvement in the publication process can spark a love for publishing that alleviates its pressures.
Publishing novel, eye-grabbing results is rewarded in academia; whether publishing robust replications will be rewarded by graduation committees and future employers is yet to be determined. Andrea Stoevenbelt calls on committees to consider how different publications are weighed on candidates’ CVs.
Requiring Ph.D. candidates to publish to obtain a Ph.D. can provide much-needed improvements to academic systems in developing countries such as Vietnam, argues Quan-Hoang Vuong.
PhD students and early career researchers are severely underfunded, explains Yuki Yamada, an Associate Professor in Psychology. Paired with biased selection criteria and unreasonable demands, this not only harms Japan’s young scientists, but presents a threat to academia itself.
Setting publication targets for students is corrosive for scientific culture and instils the wrong values in PhD students, argues Nick Yeung. A culture shift in PhD student evaluation criteria is needed, away from publications as the key proxy for student success.
Evaluating PhD students by their publications may have the outward appearance of a meritocracy, but as long as students from minority groups do not enjoy the same privileges as their peers, the playing field is anything but level, argues Alon Zivony.