Pitfalls and Blessings: A 21st century Research Journey

Being in the academic world these days comes with many pros and cons, ups and downs, privileges, and struggles. On average, doctorate holders represent 1.1% of the 25–64-year-old population across OECD countries (source). That sounds like a very small percentage. But let us put this number a little bit into perspective: In 2006, approximately 1.3 million peer-reviewed scientific articles were published, synonymously leading to a rise in scientific journals from 16.000 in 2001 to more than 23.000 in just five years (source). Today the number of available journals to choose from is even larger, a presumed 30.000+ while, at the same time, enabling lower quality journals (source). You might think “paradox of choice”, how to decide which journal to go for?

Unsplash picture by Claudio Schwarz

Let us add another lens to that: “Fewer than 1%—manage to publish a paper every year” (source). Publication practices have long received the slogan: “publish or perish” (that speaks for itself) across disciplines such as medicine (source) and management studies (source). Assuming you have made it into a journal, about one third of articles in the social sciences do not get cited, much less in the natural sciences, but even more in the humanities with an approximate 80% of publications never getting cited after publication (source).

Publishing in a scientific journal has become a significant challenge. A challenge so significant that a professor once said to me, “When you receive the response from a journal inviting you to revise your manuscript – you celebrate” (Note, this does not mean the paper has been accepted yet, but it has moved on to round 2). A study on journal acceptance rates at Elsevier found an average of 32% of papers that make it past review (source) while “scientists suffer constant pressure to publish new work frequently” (source). In the case of a paper-based PhD, it is often mandatory to get papers into the review process while working on the PhD. Fortunately, actually being published by the end of the PhD is not necessarily a requirement – although it certainly will not hurt. But looking at the statistics sheds a light on the chances of doing that.

The lifecycle of scientific publishing only works with the valuable and dedicated time of unpaid reviewers but the pressure in the academic world is high, and an elbow-mentality is growing. In recent years the peer-review process is receiving some significant backlash. An article published by the highly recognized Journal of Management Studies almost read like a long-suppressed outcry: “Reining in Reviewer Two: How to Uphold Epistemic Respect in Academia”, criticizing the behavior of a reviewer who deprecated the use of low-tier journals (source). In a similar vein, DORA (the Declaration on Research Assessment) was formed in 2012 in order to improve ways in which researchers and research outputs are evaluated (source) and to date, more than 20,000 individuals and organizations have joined in, promoting this objective. While epistemic respect is crucial for scientific publishing, criticism and accepting rejection is the “daily bread” as Germans would say, or “the norm” for every researcher. However, a rejection by one reviewer or one journal does not decrease the value of the manuscript. Publishing is a journey and taking it from an Associate Professor at Princeton: “Authors should be wary of being drawn into this morass until they find an interested editor“ (source). And, I too know researchers who publish more than one paper a year—nothing is impossible.

Unsplash picture by Nathan Dumlao

It goes without saying that we have achieved a few milestones in education and academia in general. Higher education enrolment rates have almost doubled to close to 40% worldwide since the beginning of this century to 2018 (source). Education has become increasingly accessible to people around the world and this is a great achievement in many ways. However, there is no such thing as a flawless education system and scientific publishing has become an obstacle like never before. But along the ups and downs and the long way ahead, being able to learn, publish, and contribute to knowledge generation, informing others about our findings feels so very rewarding at the end of the day. Being able to produce research and working on the world’s challenges and concerns, in my humble opinion, is still worth the hours we put into it.

“Any fool can know. The point is to understand.” 
― Albert Einstein

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