Scitech | Publish or perish?

Why academic publishing should not be the end goal

In academia, publications are everything. They are used to rank universities, make tenure decisions, and judge job applications. The race to publish starts early: by the time doctoral students graduate, they are expected to have several first author publications to be competitive in the academic market.

The race has become so intense  that even undergraduates are feeling the heat. For students applying to graduate programs, “a publication certainly makes an application stand out,” said Dr. Bärbel Knäuper, graduate program director of the Psychology Department at McGill. But having a publication doesn’t just look nice; it has practical value as well. “The potential supervisor will also know that the application will have good chances of winning a fellowship, which is definitely another plus,” added Knäuper.

Graduate fellowships certainly compound the benefits of publishing early. A fellowship means another prized line on a CV and, in many cases, the financial freedom to skip a teaching assistant position and devote more time to research.

Undergraduate publications aren’t crucial in all the sciences, though. Areas steeped in theory or high-level mathematics offer undergraduates little chance to get their names on a published work. Dr. Jan Seuntjens, director of the Medical Physics Unit, told The Daily that while research experience is important, undergraduate students simply don’t have the background to make scholarly contributions in his field. “Research shouldn’t come at the expense of getting a good basis [of understanding],” he added.

On the other hand, in biology-based fields like neuroscience and pharmacology, publications are more important than ever. “There’s less and less money for fellowships and grants,” observed Dr. Josephine Nalbantoglu, director of the Integrated Program in Neuroscience, “so people are setting the bar higher and higher. Now, they do give quite a few marks if you’ve presented or published [as an undergraduate]. This was unheard of five, six years ago.”

Still, many in academia caution against overemphasizing publications, fearing that quantity may come at the expense of quality. Professor Joaquín “Quim” Madrenas, chair of the McGill Department of Microbiology and Immunology and Canada Research Chair in Human Immunology, is emphatic on the issue. “Publications should not be the goal,” he told The Daily. “The goal is discoveries, and these discoveries translate into publications.” Undergraduate Research Officer at McGill, Victor Chisholm pointed out that if a student is disappointed about not getting a publication, they might be in it for the wrong reasons. “It’s more important to get an appreciation of what science is,” he said. “When you’re in the lab, you’re participating in the creation of new knowledge.”

Much of the pressure on undergraduates to publish stems from funding agencies, rather than from the research community. Dr. Sivakumaran Nadarajah, graduate admissions and scholarship director for the Department of Mechanical Engineering at McGill, questions the space on Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) applications that asks for previous publications. “It makes students worry needlessly,” he said in an interview with The Daily. “Most [engineering] faculties don’t expect undergraduates to have publications.”

Students should focus instead on finding research topics that engage them intellectually. Dr. Laura Nilson, associate professor of Biology and associate dean of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies believes this can be just as important as getting published. A sophisticated understanding of their own research is a huge strength, she observed of graduate applicants.  “If you can develop that, that’s something.”

Unfortunately, many undergraduate researchers find themselves doing grunt work, with little chance to engage in the research, let alone get publication credit. “They end up in these work study positions that involve feeding fish or just running gels,” said Irene Xie, co-editor-in-chief of the McGill Science Undergraduate Research Journal (MSURJ). “And of course, that’s not the really intellectually stimulating thing they want to be doing.”

So how does an undergraduate get involved in high quality research? It helps to become integrated into the fabric of the lab. That takes a lot of time and commitment, and not just from the undergraduate student. “The hardest thing to do is to match them up with a graduate student who’s prepared to put their time in,” said Dr. Derek Bowie, associate professor in the Department of Pharmacology and Therapeutics.

Dr. Bowie also motivates his undergraduates by giving them small projects with the potential to become short papers. But for one former undergraduate, Patricia Brown, it wasn’t the possibility of a publication that kept her motivated, but her engagement in the lab itself. “When I wasn’t in class, I was in the lab,” she recalled. “I had a spot, I had a computer where I could put my stuff. It was very much like you were part of a team. I don’t know if, without that, I would have stayed.”

Brown did publish a paper from her undergraduate work, and stayed in Dr. Bowie’s lab for graduate studies in the Integrated Program in Neuroscience. To students familiar with the ups and downs of research, Brown’s story may sound too good to be true. Her supervisor, however, emphasized the importance of sheer determination. “When they want it to happen, they make it happen,” he said of his students.

Dr. Hugh Bennett, graduate program director for the Division of Experimental Medicine, agreed. “There’s a lot of luck involved, but you make your own luck. You’re not going to get anywhere if you’re too passive.” He added, “You’re not going to put the hours in if you’re not interested.” Most professors agreed that one of the most important benefits of research experience is figuring out where your interests lie. “You don’t go into research because it’s a job. You go into it because it’s a passion.”

In the end, passion, not publications, is the greatest asset an aspiring researcher can have. “If you’re sincerely interested in research,” said Dr. Nilson, “that will show through whether you get published or not.”

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