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The Pressure to Publish:
A Graduate Student's Personal Plea

Dennis R. Fox


Teaching of Psychology, 10, 177-178

The irony! Shortly after returning to graduate school at Michigan State in 1982, I wrote a short rant about why professors shouldn't pressure students to publish. Then...

  • I got it published in Teaching of Psychology, the journal of APA's Division on Teaching.
  • An untenured professor wrote a response to it, essentially defending things as they are.
  • They invited me to write a response to his response--my second publication, longer than the first, with references (there is a literature on this, after all).
  • A few years later, the Division included both articles in a handbook for grad students.

So my critique of the pressure to publish got me four lines on that all-important vita!

There's something wrong with this picture.

I don't think things have changed very much.

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


"Of course," added Bill McGuire, "those of you without tenure yet can ignore what I'm going to say " Laughter.

McGuire, speaking at the 1982 Murray Lectures at Michigan State University, went on to offer several now-familiar suggestions for improving the quality of research done by personality and social psychologists, a theme highlighted at the conference by Salvatore Maddi and others and written about at least for the past decade (McGuire, 1973). The laughter of the audience did not seem to be a rejection of the suggestions, rather, it seemed to be an (uneasy?) acknowledgement of the inconsistencies often found between theory and reality.

The American Psychological Association's Publication Manual (1974) points out that "some problems that arise in manuscripts may be attributed to the publish-or-perish spirit in which they are written" (p. 22), This pressure to publish--and to publish as often as possible--directly interferes with the kind of research advocated by Maddi, McGuire, and the others: research that is multi-dimensional, longitudinal, collaborative, and relevant to life in the real world. Indeed, the Publication Manual points out how "we become content with rapid, mediocre investigations where longer and more careful work is possible" (1974, p. 22),

Publish-or- perish as a guideline for untenured faculty has now become something of a mania even for graduate students. How else, we are told by our professors, will you find a job? It's a jungle out there, and a list of publications to flesh out the curriculum vitae is supposed to be our first line of defense. It doesn't much matter what we publish, or whether we actually write anything original or useful or thoughtful: what matters is how long a list of publications we can present to the Search Committee of whatever institution we hope to work at.

The lip-service given to calls for a reappraisal of where the field is headed is sometimes impressive. "Sure I agree with what he says," said one graduate student in reference to McGuire's lecture, "but he's right--you won't get published that way." Another student tells of a professor's comment that whether or not research results are valid is less important than whether or not they are publishable.

Upon returning to the university to complete my doctorate after a decade outside the halls of academia, I was quite unprepared for today's frantic push to publish. In the early 1970s, in retrospect, there seemed to be a quite reasonable understanding that graduate school was a place to become educated. Publication was certainly not discouraged, but it was not stressed to the point of exhaustion either. We were expected to do a thesis and a dissertation, but intensive additional research and publication was for the most part something to be done after graduate school.

In 1982, education seems to have given way to career training. There's nothing exactly wrong with career training--don't get me wrong, I would like a job when I get my doctorate--but making career training the priority over education seems to me to be a misguided trend. 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, When are we supposed to read, to discuss, to listen, to think? How can we learn to relate one field of study to another when we are pushed to produce, to specialize, to become prematurely socialized into the role of worried (untenured) faculty? Well-meaning advice by concerned professors to "read only the first sentence of every paragraph in books you 'have' to get through" is not helpful.

The pressure to produce can be resisted to some extent by a stubborn refusal to worry about the future, though such a posture is difficult to maintain; I am, after all, writing this article. The danger, though, is that some students will drop out entirely, discouraged by the senselessness of it all. Social psychology attracts many undergraduates who see in the field a way to approach the problems of real people in modern society. Many of the best of these students become understandably disillusioned once they reach graduate school and discover that relevance may stand in the way of career.

Some undergraduates discover this while still in college. A junior in a class I'm teaching told me about a professor who is trying to get her to publish now. The student, with some justification, does not feel the need at this point in her life to worry about publication; she is still trying to sort out her place in psychology, trying to decide if social psychology will allow her the flexibility and relevance she wants. The response of the professor, though, was to point out the necessity of publishing in order to get into graduate school!

The time has long since come for Search Committees and Tenure Committees to seriously question the value of "publishing" as a motivating force in academic life. Certainly at least those students primarily interested in their own education would be better served by a faculty that stressed thought rather than output. I would also argue that psychology as a field and society as a whole would likewise be better served by a psychology oriented toward thoughtful relevance rather than rushed publication. Societal trends toward conservatism and economic pressures toward job competitiveness should not be allowed to stand in the way of a well-rounded education in psychology that is meaningful to the student's life in the real world.


American Psychological Association. 1974. Publication manual of the American Psychological Association (2nd ed.). Washington, DC: Author.

McGuire, W. J. 1973. The yin and yang of progress in social psychology: Seven koan. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 26, 446-456.

McGuire, W. J. 1982. Explorations in the spontaneous self concept: Going beyond self-esteem and the reactive self. Paper presented at The Michigan State University Henry A. Murray Lectures in Personality, East Lansing, MI, April 1982.

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Article Reprinted

  • ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. EJ 288 782
  • In M. E. Ware & R. J. Millard (Eds.) (1987) Handbook on Student Development: Advising, Career Development, and Field Placement (pp. 119-120). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

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Page updated August 5, 2009