‘Publish or Perish’: The dark side of tenured professorship

As tenured professorships become harder and harder to find, the pressure to publish research is taking priority over quality and integrity in academia.

Under the Arch

‘Publish or Perish’: The dark side of tenured professorship

As tenured professorships become harder and harder to find, the pressure to publish research is taking priority over quality and integrity in academia.

An illustration of a woman in a green t-shirt with brown hair holding her hands to her head with a stressed expression on her face against a dark blue background. There is a thought bubble from her head that contains a set of beige papers with scribbles on them and gray chaotic scribbles surrounding the papers.

(Illustration by Jane El Khoury)

Aashna Miharia, Deputy News Editor | Feb. 11, 2024

In the last few years, some of the most prominent academics in the country have lost their careers to lacking or even fraudulent research. In 2018, a researcher at Cornell University was found to have manipulated data in many of his studies. This past summer, former Stanford University president Marc Tessier-Lavigne resigned from his post after accusations that some of the research produced by his lab included data that had been tampered with. Even more recently, former Harvard University president Claudine Gay was accused of plagiarizing throughout her academic career.

While these are only a few high-profile cases, they are also the product of the culture in academia today. With increasingly fewer tenured jobs in research and higher education, researchers feel pressured to publish studies as often as possible, even if their work is low-quality or manipulated.

Ivan Oransky — a distinguished journalist in residence at NYU and co-founder of Retraction Watch, a publication that tracks retractions in research journals — said that the more published research a university has, the better its ranking and national reputation will be, incentivizing professors to publish more to advance their careers. 

“The metric of needing to publish, in particular, is a very important one for individual researchers,” Oransky told WSN. “It’s how they’re judged. It’s how they get promoted and how they get you career advancement of one kind or another.”

In 2011, a study published by Career Development International found that 74% of respondents — all faculty from research-oriented business schools in the United States like NYU — “strongly agreed” that they felt pressure to publish research in peer-reviewed academic journals, and 20% more “agreed” with the sentiment. In the view of most respondents, professors who fail to do so are denied tenure.

At NYU, more than $1 billion is spent on research each year, and the university produced 3,359 pieces of research in 2023 between professors in various fields. Tarek Abdoun, a civil and urban engineering professor at NYU Abu Dhabi, said that the university not only looks at the number of publications a professor has, but also what publications their work appears in. 

“There are certain activities we as faculty are required to do to demonstrate our accomplishments or unique performance,” Abdoun said in an interview with WSN. “But on the other hand, there is also a mechanism to [avoid] things like low-quality research, or even publishing things which might not be realistic or correct, which we call peer review.”

While professors try to publish more in the hopes of securing tenure, many universities are hiring fewer full-time professors. The number of full-time and tenured positions, which can offer more job security and better pay, have decreased in favor of part-time and contract-based positions.

In 2022, NYU’s faculty comprised 57.1% part-time faculty and 42.9% full-time faculty, according to the university’s annual Common Data Set reports. The only time the percentage of full-time faculty increased between 2017 and 2022 was in 2020, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“If you know that you need to get a certain paper published, you will do anything,” Oransky said. “It becomes almost a rational financial decision to pay money to a paper mill, which will produce a paper for you or add you as an author. Once you publish a certain number of papers, you will get better job tenure.” 

Abdoun said he has also served on committees that consider which professors to reward with tenure, and said they are evaluated by their research, teaching and “service to the university as well as to the community.” These committees also consider the h-index, which measures the amount of articles a researcher has published and how much their research has been referenced to by other researchers, according to Abdoun. 

“It’s quite worrying, the lengths that people are going to game that metric and to game those citations,” Oransky said. “People are coming up with what sounds like ingenious, but are actually very harmful, ways to make sure that their paper gets cited much more often.” 

For example, people unethically bolster citations on scholarly papers by including extra references in the metadata so that the regular readers cannot see it, according to Oransky. 

The Journal of Research in Medical Sciences in 2014 discovered that merely 45% of articles from top scientific journals are cited within the first five years after publication. That figure is dropping despite the global research output annually increasing

Abdoun said added support for faculty can reduce how stressful their work environment is due to the pressure to publish research, amongst other factors. For instance, he described mentoring programs in which senior professors guide new faculty on how to approach their research. 

Update, Feb. 12: This article has been updated with additional information regarding Marc Tessier-Lavigne’s resignation. 

Contact Aashna Miharia at [email protected].