Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Writing on Demand

For some reason I thought the slogan "Publish or Perish", and its attendant polemic, was a product of the 1980s.* So I was surprised to see it used in a literary journal in 1960:

A great deal of harm has come out of the necessity for academics to publish as a means to promotion and to compete with their fellows in the domain of the physical sciences. Driven on by the same categorical imperative, 'Publish or Perish', they invent this drivel by the yard. (X: A Quarterly Review, vol. 1, no. 2., March 1960, p.159.)

This is precisely the sense in which the slogan is used today. My own view is that after half a century of complaining it may be time to approach academic publication in more constructive terms.

I don't want to deny that writing suffers when the writer feels the demands of adminstrators more strongly than the demands of readers. Indeed, there is an interesting tension here between the senses of "demand"—the demands of a boss vs. market demand. Ideally, authors should write to satisfy their readers, not their administrators (who aren't even editors or publishers of their work). But in reality, as the editors of X suggest, a great deal of writing is produced simply to keep one's job or to improve one's position.

I am certain that writing "drivel" more or less consicously, i.e., writing without a serious intent to satisfy the curiosity of an imagined group of readers, drains writers of the strength they need to keep the research process running, the writing process included. A long list of publications produced with this attitude may constitute a Pyrrhic victory.

Here's what I suggest instead. Let's accept that the only way your department head (whether present or future) can evaluate your work is to see that you are publishing and where you are publishing it. No adminstrator can reasonably be expected to evaluate the content of what you write. (Which is why jargon-ridden drivel will do just fine in most cases.) But this should not lead you see publication as an end in itself, nor even the means to an end.

The proper means to the end of winning time to pursue your own research interests (something approaching tenure, let us say) is not merely publishing your work but having it read. If you make it your business to find and maintain a readership, you will have no problem getting published. You will then satisfy both sets of demands as an ordinary part of communicating your results.

My point is that a sincere desire to be read is much more useful to you as a researcher than a half-hearted ambition to be published. Not "Publish or Perish", then, but "Find a Readership or Perish".

*Update: The phrase is of course much older than I had thought. Eugene Garfield traces it back part of the way to its source (The Scientist 10 (12): 11, June 10, 1996. PDF). I will join the quest.

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