Origin and evolution of the "publish or perish" phenomenon

Origin and evolution of the "publish or perish" phenomenon

The origin of the phrase "publish or perish" has been intriguing since this question was first raised by Eugene Garfield in 1996. In this blog, I will talk about the evolution of the meaning of this phrase and show the earliest use known at this point.

The origin of the phrase "publish or perish" was first questioned by Eugene Garfield (1996). He wrote that he had used the phrase in his speeches for thirty years, but had not heard anything about its origin. He consulted professors, librarians, dictionaries, and the Internet, but never found out who first suggested the phrase. His searches and consultations with professors and librarians led to the work of Logan Wilson (1942), which at that time was the oldest known work in which the phrase "publish or perish" appeared.

I, too, am fascinated by the origin of this phrase and was interested in finding earlier works which mention "publish or perish". In 2015, I found snippets of four not fully identified works, published from 1927 to 1940, while searching in Google Books in the time interval 1920-1940. These works all contained the phrase “publish or perish”. In 2018, Guillaume Cabanac clarified the author and title of one of these snippets I had found earlier, a sociological article from 1927 according to Google Books (Case, 1927-1928). In addition, he found another article mentioning the phrase, this time from 1934 by Isaiah Bowman. Also in the same year (2018), Imad Moosa discovered a book by Harrold Jefferson Coolidge and Robert Howard Lord from 1932.

Previously mentioned authors used Google Books and JSTOR to search for publications in which the phrase "publish or perish" appears, but for the first time, I have used The General Index, which was launched in 2021, to find relevant publications.

Although Guillaume Cabanac had tracked down the article by Isaiah Bowman from 1934 - an obituary of the eminent American geographer and geomorphologist William Morris Davis (1850-1934) - he did not cite the following excerpt that mentions the phrase.

"To Professor Davis is due the organization of the Association of American Geographers in 1904, at a meeting in his native Philadelphia. He immediately urged that the Association "publish or perish". "If it's worth doing it's worth printing," was his advice to students."

It is clear from this obituary that William Morris Davis was one of the first people known to have emphasised the need to “publish or perish”. The fact that this expression belongs to him was confirmed by Professor Robert Speight in 1935. He published an Inaugural Address which he made on the occasion of the establishment of the Royal Society of New Zealand in 1934 quoting the phrase.

“The opportunity to publish the results of work is a most real form of encouragement. One of the aphorisms of Professor W.M. Davis, “Publish or Perish”. Davis applied the remark to individuals, for he went on to say, " If it is worth doing, it is worth printing!”. No opportunity to print is afforded, then the well of inspiration dries up”

Both Isaiah Bowman and Robert Speight refer to this phrase by William Morris Davis. By this, they both pay tribute to this man, who died in February 1934. As we can see from the above two excerpts, William Morris Davis viewed this phrase in a positive sense, believing that new knowledge must be published, otherwise it perishes.

Negative connotation

Let us ask ourselves: when did this phrase begin to take on a negative connotation? I first saw this negative connotation in the sociological article by Clarence Marsh Case (1928). It describes the situation of publications by American sociologists at that time, where their quality is inversely proportional to their quantity, which the author of this article attributes to the use of “publish or perish” in the promotion at Universities. Other reasons include the fact that publishing is generally easier than it used to be and the insistent demand for sociological textbooks by major publishers.

The origins of the overarching negative attitude towards this slogan should be sought in the activities of James Bryant Conant (1893-1978) who was President of Harvard University from 1933 to 1953. Under his presidency, the phrase "publish or perish" becomes not just a slogan but a dictum, elevated to the rank of university policy, when a faculty member can be dismissed for failing to publish as required. The most notorious case of faculty dismissal at Harvard University under Conant's presidency related to the slogan was described by Irwin Ross (1940). The story goes that, according to the student's committee, two economics lecturers (J. Raymond Walsh and Alan R. Sweezy) were most likely dismissed in April 1937 because they had failed to publish a sufficient number of scientific and methodological papers, and preferred to devote most of their energies to their students. Others, according to Irwin Ross, have suggested that the dismissal may have been due to the left-wing views of the faculty, but more importantly, the introduction of the "publish or perish" dictum may have been linked to the Great Depression, when there was a huge surplus of graduate students and young faculty seeking assistant professorships. As Irwin Ross writes, during the Great Depression "countless young people saw academic life as a safe and pleasant refuge from the economic storm".

European origin

The second snippet I found in 2015 was the Fortnightly Review (1939) which mentions James Bryant Conant as the introducer of the principle of “publish or perish”.

“… this principle survives, there is a danger that professors will become mere back-workers. Let it not thought that the old gentlemanly institutions are free from this tendency. President Conant of Harvard, who is himself a highly cultured person, has introduced the principle of “publish or perish " with a vengeance into America's oldest university. Indeed, English universities, even Oxford and Cambridge, which have been most scornful towards these German - American methods, are adopting them rather ...”

In the above excerpt from The Fortnightly Review, the reference to German-American methods in the context of the "publish or perish" phrase is highly interesting. This suggests that traces of this phenomenon should also be sought in Europe. However, when translating this expression into German ("veröffentlichen oder untergehen"), I did not find any publications in German-language literature while searching in Google Books and NGram Viewer. Apparently, German-language literature exclusively uses the English-language term "publish or perish" when dealing with the above phenomenon.

In 1973, Werner Kaegi published a book written in German about Carl Jacob Christoph Burckhardt (fifth volume). Living from 1818 to 1897, he was a Swiss historian of art and culture and an influential figure in the historiography of both fields. In this book, I found the following sentence:

“At times, Burckhardt was not very far off the mark when he surmised the catchphrase for the academic world of the 20th century: "Publish or perish!" Burckhardt does not derive all this from "developments" and "economic necessities", but from the "rage of getting rich quick". He, who has to prove through his daily work…”

Since Jacob Burckhardt died in 1897, the literary proven reference to the slogan "publish or perish" should be pushed back from the early 20th century (William Morris Davis, 1904) to at least the late 19th century. It would be interesting to initiate historical and archival research using the memoirs of Jacob Burckhardt and the works of his biographers in order to find more detailed information on the description of this phenomenon.

Since book printing and the first scientific journals originated in Europe, it is not surprising that the origins of the slogan "publish or perish" seem to originate there too. The fact that there is no Latin saying "publish aut perire" on the Internet does not mean that it did not exist, because the percentage of digitised manuscripts and books in Latin is still very small (estimation of only 27.014 works as Latin in Open Access – Bamman & Smith 2012), and they are far from all being studied. In general, out of 130 million unique books available in 2010, Google Books has only placed around 10 million books in Open Access, which means there might be more information to be discovered about the origin of the slogan.

Modern development

Thus, it seems that the slogan "publish or perish" was invented long before Eugene Garfield developed the citation index (1955) and the impact factor of journals (1972), which initially raised the question about the origin of this slogan. The former became a good tool for monitoring the state of science, while the latter served for a long time exclusively for planning library subscriptions.

But the moment came when science officials decided to use the impact factor of a journal as a criterion for the career development of a scientist and evaluation of scientific research results, and then the real publication race under the slogan "publish or perish" began. This seems to have happened when the US Institute for Scientific Information (founded by Eugene Garfield) was acquired by Thomson Scientific & Healthcare in 1992 and then the journal impact factor was put at the service of commercial publishers, who began to monopolise the market of scientific periodicals.

Many countries have begun to introduce publication incentive schemes, in which rewards for journal articles were made dependent on the interval of change in the impact factor of journals (Monetary Rewards Systems). Scientific periodical publishers took advantage of this eventually monopolising the periodicals market, and taking over all high-impact journals. This allowed them to drive up the price of journal subscriptions, leading in the early 2000s to the Open Access movement and later to Plan S (2019) with its complete abandonment of the journal subscription model. A major role in the fight against the “publish or perish” doctrine was played by the launch of DORA in 2012, which requires a move away from the journal impact factor when assessing research outputs.

It should be noted that the launch of the Open Access movement coincided with the launch of World University Rankings, which strongly undermined this movement, fuelling the publication race, mainly in developing countries. For example, after the launch of ARWU in 2003, Chinese authors' fees for publishing articles in high-impact journals reached remarkable levels: "scholars that succeed in publishing in top-ranked journals like Nature, Science and Cell are receiving cash awards of up to RMB 1 million ($166,600)" (Ren, Montgomery, 2015). In addition, Jane Qiu (2010) wrote an article entitled "Publish or Perish in China" which mentioned that Chinese universities award prizes, benefits, and other perks on the basis of high-profile publications. Additionally, it refers to a study at Wuhan University where dubious science-publishing activities have increased by five times from 2007 to 2009.

In my opinion, citation indices should fulfil their main role - to track the state of science and trends in its development, and not serve as a tool for a publication race under the cynical slogan "publish or perish". Because if this continues, the slogan will be replaced by "publish best or do not publish at all".

Header image: Powered by Pexels
DOI: 10.59350/tbhbb-spm02 (export/download/cite this blog post)


Add a comment