Is ‘publish or perish’ oppressive?

This blog is by Dr Pooja Sawrikar, Founder and Director Scholar Freedom, who discusses if the publish or perish framework in academia is a feminist issue and the implications for non-mainstream scholarship.

If you’re asking yourself, “is the publish or perish framework in academia an intersectional feminist issue?”, the answer is yes. Let us dive deep to understand why. There is a key phrase that need to be defined first so that we are on the same page about what we are discussing: ‘publish or perish’. This phrase that gained momentum around the early 2000s – the same time neoliberalism was coming in as an ominous cloud on the higher education sector. Neoliberalism was all about justifying public expenditure on universities – if this government portfolio was going to be run on taxpayer’s dollars, yet some academics were taking longer than ten years to finish their PhD – then an intervention was seen as needed. In came 4-year limits on PhDs and a push for industry collaborations.

When these kinds of principles dominate operations in universities, several problems emerge. Go too far, and you can see how disciplines like religion and philosophy, from which the government can see little financial return on investment (ROI), drop in esteem and funding. Indeed, the ‘Ph’ in ‘PhD’ is philosophy. Researchers are philosophers. We are thinkers. And thought cannot always be condensed into a handful of years. An Arts degree used to really mean something. Deep thinkers had a valued place in society, and it was understood that they needed to remain ‘secular’ from government and business so that these two sectors could each rely on their intellectual independence. Neoliberalism began to merge the three, and the high overlap is where everyone started to shit in everyone’s nest.

Research funding: An overview

Universities lost significant public funding when the government abandoned them to ‘find their own way’. One of their strategies for recouping what had been lost was international student revenue, but when it came to attracting research funding this became particularly saturated with cutthroat competition and research that could be commercialised and patented became clear winners. Federal Ministers started having despotic final-veto power over whose work could get funded. And while the work of those in industry does benefit from partnerships with academia, and academics benefit from leaving the silo of the ivory tower, an oft-unsaid power dynamic showed up here too in which the knowledge of practitioners in industry dropped in its own independent value.

Measuring quality? How is feminist research ranked?

So, the government pulled swathes of public funding for what is a public institution (and to this day, decades on, has not correctly updated its ‘Not for Profit’ status) and then asked researchers to fight among themselves to justify their worthiness for the little that was available. Enter academic narcissism. Ranking journals by their impact factor, only counting them on specific indexing sites over others, and other futile measures of quality such as the ERA, ‘Excellence in Research in Australia’ (or the ‘REF’ as UK’s equivalent) were all attempts to quantify the quality of research, and each one was another step removed from where the real assessment of quality lies – in the words themselves.

But governments needed a shorthand way to decide who to give the money to because reading the work is timeinefficient. Number of publications, the impact factors of journals they were each published in, and where their name sits in the list of authors became their quick indicators. Every piece of work where you are not the first author is a devalued mark against your name, as is every book chapter or other publication perceived to have not undergone a cutthroat peer review process – all in deflection of the actual cogency and content of the work. A long track record looks mighty impressive, and if you are attached to a winning research team that has ‘cracked the formula’ for how to get grants and sell yourself as the true thought leader above others, then the self-fulfilling prophecy of future flowing
money continues.

A way forward for anti-oppressive feminist scholarship

Good thought has nothing to do with the logo that appears at the top of the PDF it is published on. Some of those logos cost researchers more than US$11,000. If you have a publicly-funded grant that covers this cost and can afford to publish in journals with high impact factors, then you shoot straight to the top in the narcissism cage. Suddenly, the government is a bit quiet on why it’s willing to use public funds to line the pocket of commercial publishers but not explain why that US$11,000 could not just be simply used to fund a philosopher doing deep thinking.

Feminist scholarship defies definition, as it should. It can vary widely in methodology, frameworks, purpose, discoveries, and meaning-making. Still, there is something that holds it together: it seeks truth and fairness against a historical landscape that has systemically devalued women’s labour and knowledge. This devaluation has even played out in the very way feminist scholarship is structured in academia. Most times, gender studies have been relegated and subsumed to other departments and has risked being “swallowed” by non-complementary or better- funded disciplines, or – as is the case in some states in the US currently – being called to be banned altogether.

If there was ever a time in which we need PhD scholars and early career researchers (ECRs) to be picking up this mantle, it is now. Our very existence as an intersectional knowledge producing discipline disrupts neoliberal ideology in which our value is beyond time and money. Our work is life-long and extends past the four years of deep investment in the philosophy of what it means to be a woman in this world – be it trans, cis, gay, straight, non- binary, Indigenous, Black, brown, white, young, old, skinny, fat, rich, poor, able-bodied, or (in)visibly suffering in ways people cannot see. The quality of our labour cannot be metricised: gender studies and feminist scholarship exist to remind the purse string holders that we cannot be cut up into what they believe is worthy of funding. We exist in whole, and slow is good.