Publish and perish


In his fascinating book, “The world of gold today, Timothy Green wrote about gold reserves in Fort Knox as one of the silliest ventures taken up by human beings. We slave hard to take out the gold that lies under the earth at tremendous cost of lives and resources. We refine it, transport it across the world and then bury it again under the earth at enormous cost. There can be no venture sillier than that, he argued.

I just had my Fort Knox moment. I discovered that four of the papers that I worked hardest on and got published have been cited once cumulatively in four years. While that is bad, it gets worse. I heard a statistic that the average dissertation is read by seven people in all, and that often includes the mother of the author. We devote years and resources and to bury ourselves amidst the walls, only to produce something that will be buried in turn, a venture as silly as the gold stores of Fort Knox. It is sobering to realize that the posts I do on Facebook do much better than that, and generally takes only a few minutes to do so.

My recent realisation came when I looked at the software called Publish or Perish. The software helps us to track the performance of various authors, articles, journals and gives us an indication of the “impact” that the author has had. The impact of an author certainly goes beyond the citation that he or she receives: no doubt about that. Such software tend to underestimate the citations one has received since they do not cover all sources, no doubt about that as well. After taking all that into account, it still leaves the work that we do in the academia in very poor light, and life in the academia looks like the perfect route into oblivion: to publish is to perish.

Ps. To those masochistic ones who wish to measure their oblivion or the sadistic ones who wish to precisely estimate the unimportance of your “friends”, you should download and play with Publish or Perish. It costs nothing to download and run; costs to emotions are a different matter.


About Vivek Srinivasan

I work with the Program on Liberation Technology at Stanford University. Before this, I worked with the Right to Food Campaign and other rights based campaigns in India. To learn more, click here.

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