Tragedy of publishing but perishing scholars

On September 25, 2014, Stefan Grimm, a professor of toxicology at Imperial College London was found dead in his home in the UK. Investigations revealed that he died of asphyxiation. Grimm was not an average professor. He passed through prestigious universities such as Tübingen in Germany and Harvard in the US.

He had published 50 articles in peer-reviewed journals, two books and five patent applications over a period spanning about 20 years. His work was acknowledged to have made remarkable contribution to the understanding of molecular and cellular mechanisms of cell death in connection with the development of cancer.

Typed notes found next to his body and an email he seems to have timed to be sent after his death lifted the lid off the troubled life of a scholar struggling to meet the high expectations of a professorial position in his university.

In spite of his relatively good publishing record, his efforts to win research grants failed miserably. His departmental head was not impressed and put immense pressure on him to improve. Frustrated and uncertain about his future in the institution, he took his own life. Such is the pressure under which true academics work all over the world. Unfortunate as it was, this tragic death offers a classical case study of how some academics publish, but still perish, albeit not physically.

Scholarly excellence

The pressure on academics to excel is embodied in the all-familiar dictum "publish or perish". Opinions are divided about the use of one's publication record to assess scholarly excellence. Critics particularly point to the overreliance on peer review as a gate-keeping mechanism in scholarly communication which they say is biased, subjective and ineffective.

In spite of its limitations, a publishing record remains a critical measure of one's scholarly excellence. Indeed, one must keep publishing. However, in the emerging scholarly dispensation, publishing alone will not assure one of tenure or promotion. Progressively, most institutions now consider not just the quantity of outputs but also the quality and visibility of the same. The latter two are used as indicators of the impact of the research outputs. For instance, the number of citations is seen as an indication of the usefulness or relevance of a publication and is lately becoming as important as the quantity of articles published. Linked to citations is the visibility of published work.

The visibility of a publication is a major determinant of its usability and can be perceived as the measure of ease of identification and access of the work. One clear determinant of visibility is the channel of publication.

Predatory journals

The more visible the channel, the more visible the publications therein would be. The visibility of scholarly work is enhanced through indexing by renowned databases such as Web of Science and Scopus, among others. These databases are highly selective of the channels they draw articles from. One channel they shun is predatory journals.

Lately, scholars are also assessed in terms of collaboration and networking. This explains the increase in the number of scholarly social networking sites such as ResearchGate, LinkedIn and Linked to this is the growing adoption of altmetrics which measures scholarly excellence based on presence and visibility on online social platforms. Therefore, scores based on indicators such as article downloads, sharing, views or tagging are increasingly becoming important in scholarly communities. Concepts such as digital footprints and shadows have also emerged. Scholars build their digital footprints and shadows through networking, collaboration, co-authorship and multidisciplinary research.

Scholars preoccupied with mere publishing will find it difficult to thrive, or even survive, in the increasingly competitive landscape. The 21st Century scholars need to think beyond productivity counts such as the number of papers published, postgraduate students supervised or conferences attended. They need to consider increasing the uptake and impact of their research products to influence theory, policy and practice in their disciplines and beyond. This way, they will contribute to making the world a better place by producing research which helps to solve pressing problems of our time. Those who do not adapt to this trend, like the dinosaurs of yore, will publish but still perish.

Prof Kwanya teaches at Technical University of Kenya. [email protected]?