Fox Professing
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Alternative Perspectives
on the Pressure to Publish

Dennis R. Fox


Teaching of Psychology, 11, 239-241

This was my second short article on this topic back in the early 1980s. My first article on the subject - a short rant - elicited a response by Martin Heesacker, so I got to write this rejoinder.

Note: This version may not exactly match the published version!


In an earlier article, I called on "Search Committees and Tenure Committees to seriously question the value of 'publishing' as a motivating force in academic life" (Fox, 1983, p. 178). In his response, Heesacker (1984) described what he took to be the many benefits of that pressure to publish. Readers of the two articles might be excused for wondering if we are talking about the same academic world. Is this just another argument about whether the glass is half empty or half full?

Rather than simply repeat the points I have already made, which Heesacker has clearly listed and disagreed with, I would like to suggest here that those on both sides of the publish-or-perish debate may have more separating them than their level of optimism or pessimism. It may be instead that those who criticize psychology's status quo (on this and other issues) and those who defend it have significantly different conceptions of what psychology and psychology education are (and should be) about. Discussion of these important issues requires more than advising those who are dissatisfied with things as they are that "a competent vocational psychologist might suggest pursuit of a different occupational environment" (Heesacker, 1984, p, 239).

In informal discussions with other graduate students and professors at Michigan State and at other institutions, I have heard occasional defenses of the publish-or-perish system that parallel those of Heesacker: Publication represents the scientific community at work and stimulates tlhought; research that strikes some people as trivial might be fascinating to the people doing it; and so on. I have even heard a tenured professor insist that there really is no pressure to publish beyond that which is self-motivated, and that the purpose of virtually all research is the accumulation of knowledge rather than the attainment of tenure; this last claim is so far from the experience of most others I have spoken to that, like Heesacker's claims, it illustrates the ability of different people within a single system to maintain entirely different perspectives.

I certainly don't mean to imply that all research is worthless, or that Heesacker's views have no merit. I think, however, that his perspective is probably a minority one, and I continue to believe that "putting pressure on graduate students to perform unending experiments for the sole purpose of getting published is a corruption of the ideals of what an education is supposed to be" (Fox, 1983, p. 177)

The pressure to publish is not an isolated problem that affects only graduate students looking for jobs and assistant professors seeking tenure. The pressure, for example, is partly responsible for the proliferation of journals and conferences primarily designed to provide an outlet for career-motivated research, and for the consequent "self-limiting" specialization that Bevan (1982) called "the most serious question facing organized psychology today" (p. 1311) (Sanford, 1982, similarly complained that psychology has become "fragmented, overspecialized, method centered, and dull" p. 902.) Many senior faculty members privately criticize current trends; many assistant professors just as privately acknowledge that much of their own research is done only for career reasons and that they have no choice but to try to publish everything they do, even when they decide the research has little merit; many also acknowledge that they give their undergraduate students minimal attention because, as one untenured professor put it, "They won't decide to keep me or get rid of me on the basis of my courses" (see Boice, 1984, p. 6, for a listing of several studies illustrating the lack of academic rewards for teaching quality).

That the issue of publication pressure extends beyond the halls of any one institution is reflected in the letter sent to me by the editor of Teaching of Psychology to inform me that my original article was accepted for publication. The editor repeated the reviewer's comment that "if you are brave enough to write it, we certainly should be willing to distribute it--these things need to be said" (R. S. Daniel, personal communication, January 28, 1983). The tendency to attribute "bravery" to one who criticizes the status quo can be taken, perhaps, as another sign of problems in a field where "these things" need to be said more often.

Outside psychology the situation apparently is much the same. A philosophy professor told me he retired partly because the joy of teaching lessened in the mid-seventies when, he said, "even philosophy students" started overspecializing in response to job pressures. Hyde (1983), a poet and translator looking at science in the context of a "gift community," argued that:

It is precisely when people work with no goal other than that of attracting a better job, or getting tenure or higher rank. that one finds specious and trivial research, not contributions to knowledge. When there is a marked competition for jobs and money when such supposedly secondary goals become primary, more and more scientists will be pulled into the race to hurry "original" work into print, no matter how extraneous to the wider goals of the community. (In the literary community, at least in the last few decades, the need to secure a job has certainly accounted for a fair amount of the useless material that's been published, both as literature and as criticism ) (p. 83)

Montagu (1981), an anthropologist, criticized our education system on related grounds:

Too much of our learning is done without thought, and such learning is labor lost. What passes for education is largely instruction. As one proceeds from Bachelor's degrees to Master's and Doctor's degrees, one dies both intellectually and spiritually by degrees (p 140)

Michael Birt, chairperson of the Australian Vice-Chancellors' Committee and Vice-Chancellor of the University of New South Wales, recently noted that Australian universities "cannot afford to support research by every professor, nor are all professors capable of creative research" (Maslen, 1984, p. 31), and he called upon universities to redefine promotion standards. His conclusion, that he didn't know whether professors "would be better off doing something other than research, but I know that the system would be" (p. 32), may be equally applicable to the United States.

The disparity between what might be good for psychologists' careers and what might be good for psychology as a field and society as a whole is a crucial one. This issue is only one of many ideological, theoretical, and methodologicai controversies that have surfaced in recent years (e.g., Caplan & Nelson, 1973; Ginsburg, 1979; Manicas & Second, 1983; Peters & Ceci, 1982: Sampson, 1981; Sarason, 1981). It is interesting that an MSU "Psychology and Controversy Discussion Group" that met for several months to examine a number of these topics lost its momentum, perhaps predictably, as publication and other time pressures built up (Fox, 1984).

Clearly, as Heesacker (1984) noted, the pressure to publish can result in important advances in knowledge. Yet to argue that such a beneficial result happens routinely, and that the established institutions of the field work just fine the way they are, is to ignore the reality faced by hordes of harried students and professors who see a different truth but who assume that nothing can be done about it. It is time we examined our assumption of impotence in the face of "things as they are," before the costs to psychology, to society, to our students, and to ourselves escalate even further


Bevan, W. (1982). A sermon of sorts in three plus parts. American Psychologist, 37, 1303-1322,

Boice, R. (1984). The relevance of faculty development for teachers of psychology. Teaching of Psychology, 11, 3-8,

Caplan, N , & Nelson, S. (1973). On being useful: The nature and consequences of psychological research on social problems. American Psychologist, 28, 199-211

Fox, D. R. (1983). The pressure to publish: A graduate student's personal plea. Teaching of Psychology, 10, 177-178

Fox, D. R. (1984). Psychology and controversy: Points for discussion. Unpublished.

Ginsburg, G., P. (Ed.). (1979). Emerging strategies in social psychological research. Chichester, England: Wiley.

Heesacker, M. (1984). From one without tenureL A response to Fox. Teaching of Psychology, 11, 238-239.

Hyde, L. (1983). The gift: Imagination and the erotic life of property New York. Vintage Books.

Manicas, P. T., & Secord, P. F. (1983). Implications for psychology of the new philosophy of science. American Psychologist, 38, 399-413

Maslen, G. (1984). Expectation that all professors do research called 'unrealistic" by Australian official. Chronicle of Higher Education, April 18, 31-32

Montagu, A. (1981). Growing young. New York McGraw Hill.

Peters, D. P , & Ceci, S. J. (1982). Peer-review practices of psychological journals: The fate of published articles submitted again. The Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 5, 187-255.

Sampson, E. E. (1981). Cognitive psychology as ideology. American Psychologist, 36, 730-743

Sanford N. (1982). Social psychology: Its place in personology. American Psychologist, 37, 896-903.

Sarason, S. B. (1981). Psychology misdirected. New York Free Press.

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Article Reprinted

  • In M. E. Ware & R. J. Millard (Eds.) (1987) Handbook on Student Development: Advising, Career Development, and Field Placement (pp. 121-122). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

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