Enemies of Promise: Publishing, Perishing, and the Eclipse of Scholarship

Beronda L. Montgomery (Assistant Professor, Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Michigan State University, East Lansing, Michigan, USA)

On the Horizon

ISSN: 1074-8121

Article publication date: 6 February 2007




Montgomery, B.L. (2007), "Enemies of Promise: Publishing, Perishing, and the Eclipse of Scholarship", On the Horizon, Vol. 15 No. 1, pp. 38-43. https://doi.org/10.1108/10748120710735266



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2007, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

The publisher of “Enemies of Promise”, Prickly Paradigm Press (www.prickly‐paradigm.com/), is self‐described as “devoted to giving serious authors free rein to say what's right and what's wrong about their disciplines and about the world, including what's never been said before.” With this view of Prickly Paradigm Press in mind, readers will understand the judicious tone of Lindsay Waters' “Enemies of Promise”. This critical booklet‐length essay by Dr. Waters, Executive Editor for the Humanities at Harvard University Press, is a short, but commanding, treatise on the “publish or perish” phenomenon and its destructive intermingling with the academic tenure process. In this essay, Waters shares his bird's eye view based on his position as a scholar and “from the vantage point of a non‐profit publisher inside the academy, who seeks to break even and also to preserve the dignity of thought and books” (2004, p. 4).

As an academic scientist, I approached Lindsay Waters' “Enemies of Promise”, which addresses the ills of academic publishing largely from a humanities perspective, as both an academic insider and humanities outsider. This dual viewpoint resulted in a generalist, comparative appraisal of the text in which I attempted to glean a broad‐spectrum response to Waters discourse and further to evaluate the efficacy of his position as it relates to the sciences and extend its applicability to this field in a general sense.

“Publish or perish” is a dictum that transcends academic disciplines. Many have heard this phrase that indicates that prolific publishing is the lifeline to tenure and longevity in academia, while a failure to publish is a death sentence in this arena. Disparate opinions exist about this phenomenon, ranging from support for frequent publishing to those opinions like Dr. Waters' which are cautionary about the impact prolific publishing has on the quality of published content.

In “Enemies of Promise”, Waters argues that the current state of publishing is a direct result of attempts to accomplish a “corporate makeover of the university” (2004, p. 5). He further argues that this makeover is leading to a stagnation of innovation in the humanities as authors scramble to meet the demands of publishing that are often in direct opposition to careful, thoughtful scholarship, writing and dissemination (Waters, 2004, pp. 5‐6). Dr. Waters' argument is largely geared towards the humanities field, which he maintains is being widely sidelined or brought to an innovative standstill due to the “commercialization of higher education” (2004, p. 6). This commercialization is fueled in large part by such different actors as the general public, publishers and high‐ranking university administrators.

Though Dr. Waters' claim is targeted to humanities departments, this perspective arguably is extensible to scientific disciplines as well. In fact, he eventually makes the following poignant statement: “If you are a scientist, don't allow yourself to feel complacent and superior by thinking that overproduction is a problem for humanists only” (Waters, 2004, p. 20). In a very general sense, Dr. Waters asserts that there is a “causal connection between the corporatist demand for increased productivity and the draining of all publications of any significance other than as a number” (2004, p. 6) and this clearly is a statement meant to apply to a cross‐disciplinary audience.

Waters emphasizes that “we are experiencing a generalized crisis of judgment that results from unreasonable expectations about how many publications a scholar should publish” (2004, p. 18). Waters' view is that this crisis is due to an undue focus on the production of a publication rather than on the response to the publication by consumers (2004, p. 18). He later extends this viewpoint when he states, “product is all that counts, not reception, not the human use” (Waters, 2004, p. 36). As a scientist, Dr. Waters' treatise led me to think more deeply about his arguments in the context of the academic science world. This contemplation led me to the work of several scientists offering diverse viewpoints on the current status of academic publishing in the sciences. These viewpoints range from those in strong support of frequent publishing to those much more critical of the publish‐or‐perish phenomenon. Mohamed Gad‐el‐Hak, Mechanical Engineer and Waters' fellow critic of the glut of academic publishing, offers the following view:

Unfortunately, today we witness a different environment from that of a generation ago. The publish‐or‐perish emphasis for some, but not all, institutions has deteriorated into bean counting, and the race is on to publish en masse. Demand spurs supply. Mostly‐for‐profit publishers of books and journals have mushroomed, and mediocrity has crept into both venues (Gad‐el‐Hak, 2004).

Dr. Gad‐el‐Hak (2004) goes on to say that “in an ideal world, counting the publications of individuals should not be used to evaluate them. Instead, the impact of the individuals' publications should be what is important”. A comparable point‐of‐view that is offered by M. G. Sanal (2006) is that it is possible for individuals to “publish and perish” based on the current environment. This perspective arises from an environment in which we “grade scientists on the basis of the number of publications and journals on the basis of impact factors, rather than their impact on the growth of science and the better of society” (Sanal, 2006). Sanal's viewpoint clearly echoes Waters' call to measure scholarly impact in terms of depth discussed below.

Waters extends his core argument about the troubles of counting publications to the impact that elevating quantity above quality has on the tenure‐decision process in the following example:

Remember the old philosophical conundrum passed down from generation to generation by kids in school: If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around, does it make a sound. Well the graduate school version of that question out to run as follows: Is it a contribution to scholarship if no one reads it? (2004, pp. 18‐19).

Thoughtful consideration of this question would likely lead us away from the problems of over publishing, which certainly can be associated with mediocrity. Such a consideration would force us to address the timely question presented by Waters – i.e. “Does scholarly writing only become a contribution to scholarship when somebody else reads it and appropriates it for their own work?” Waters thinks so (2004, p. 19). In fact, he states that “scholarly effect is measured in terms of the depth, not width, of the reverberation the work sets off” (Waters, 2004, p. 19). This perspective clearly recognizes prolific, yet under read and under cited, publishing as wide reverberation, while categorizing thoughtful publishing that profoundly impacts a particular field as “deep” in nature. This articulation is particularly poignant as wide reverberations are most often associated with shallow pools.

This shallowness is pervasive and its effects can be seen in many different areas. For example, Waters contends that reading broadly outside one's primary discipline once was considered a virtue that led to innovation as a result of people trying out ideas from fields other than their own (2004, p. 72). By contrast, he states that “now we accept the idea that each field is separate and that the professional has little to gain by intellectual promiscuity” (Waters, 2004, p. 72). This separatism has had dire consequences as “we have abandoned learning for its own sake for the quest for credentials” (Waters, 2004, p. 75). Waters depicts the current environment of “publish or perish” as men “struggling for dominance and encouraging youngsters to publish anything, no matter, as long as it allows them to triumph over their brothers” (2004, p. 77).

A major contributor to the problem under discussion is the current climate of publication and the plentiful initiation of new journals, presses and publishing houses which appears to support an alternative viewpoint. This alternative is that the need and demand for avenues for publishing is continuing to increase. While Waters argues strongly against this viewpoint in the humanities, science has the critical issue of publishing being tied unequivocally to the acquisition of money to fund research. This connection adds to the need for rapid and regular dissemination. As described by Phil Clapham (2005): “All research scientists – especially if they receive public funding – have a solemn obligation to publish their results.” Clapham (2005) supports regular publishing despite the fact that he acknowledges that “certainly, biology has its share of individuals whose zeal for publication exceeds the thoroughness of their analyses, and who seem more interested in getting their research into a high‐profile journal than in…getting it right.” Despite this flawed potential, Clapham identifies as a larger problem non‐publishing scientists. His view is in contrast to that boldly put forth by Waters. By contrast, Waters describes a healthy publishing environment as one is which an imprint builds a solid reputation for publishing books “of a certain meritoriousness” (2004, p. 38). This type of environment is one he describes as occurring “where publication is subordinate to the tenure mill” (Waters, 2004, p. 38) and in regards to the sciences to the quest for funding. Rather than yielding to the demands of commercialization, Waters contends that “we have to keep our eyes on the true prizes of academic activity – new experiments in the sciences and new experiences in the humanities” (2004, p. 21).

In his critique, Dr. Waters touches time and again on the impact of publishing on the tenure process and vice versa. Waters openly acknowledges his dour view of the current state of publishing and its interface with tenure decisions in his title for part II of the booklet “From Cynicism to Iconoclasm – The Promotion of the Status Quo” (2004, p. 43). Dictionary.com Unabridged (2006) defines an iconoclast as “a person who attacks cherished beliefs, traditional institutions, etc., as being based on error or superstition.” Waters attribution of tenure as a major part of the problem comes to the forefront when he states that “if tenure were abolished and uniform productivity requirements were imposed on all, fairness might be possible; but now we have an obviously unfair situation where people with few publications are in a position to demand from young “colleagues” achievements they never managed” (2004, p. 50). Strong statements such as these are par for the course for titles from Prickly Press authors; however, such strong statements may dilute the impact of Waters' apt critique of the publishing industry to those not ready or in disagreement about his stance on tenure. In his derisive critique of tenure and its impact on publishing, Waters goes on to say that:

… it is as if the schools were saying implicitly that in order to win tenure you have to prove that you are not an independent mind by subjecting yourself to the rules and goals of high productivity. But I think one thing to do is to put new pressure on the book by demanding that it be more substantial before it can be accepted and published. We are tired of McDonald's hamburgers. We want something that is slow cooked (2004, p. 82).

Waters' following statement nicely summarizes his skepticism: “A certain timidity pervades the academic world now. The wisdom of the days tells you: Don't ask big questions; don't ask why things are the way they are … Be lowly wise: stick with the minutiae” (2004, p. 47).

Having arrived at this point, a likely consideration is what answers may exist to counteract the commercialization of academic publishing and the “eclipse of scholarship” to which Waters refers to in the title of this text. Waters puts it this way:

The emerging crisis…affords us an opportunity to ask how we got where we are, from a time when all things seemed possible to a time when only the most minimal contribution seems tolerable as long as it comes sandwiched between hard covers” (2004, p. 48).

He appropriately poses the question “Why does the rise in demand for productivity come along with a seeming prohibition upon innovation?” (Waters, 2004, p. 53). Dr. Gad‐el‐Hak offers a number of own suggestions for counteracting the ill effects of the publish‐or‐perish issue – included among these is a call for more stringent peer‐review. Notably, Waters alludes that peer review is censorship. In fact he states that “it is censorship that limits what can be talked about by saying that what counts as scholarship is what matches up with the status quo” (Waters, 2004, p. 56). From this point‐of‐view, peer review becomes a tool for enforcing conformity that inevitably extinguishes innovation and eventually true freedom of thought. Dr. Gad‐el‐Hak offers a somewhat more optimistic view of the future of academic publishing. He states that “academic publishing is a great enterprise and any malady it may have recently contracted can be cured with a dose of common sense” (Gad‐el‐Hak, 2004). This view, apart from not considering whether common sense is indeed common, assumes that several individuals using common sense will arrive at an enactable consensus that will result in measurable improvements in the state of academic publishing.

Perhaps, Waters most useful suggestion comes in the form of an anecdote. Waters offers an “Hippocratic Oath for humanists, which demands that humanistic scholars not pass by ideas or evidence that contradicts their theories but face them just a doctor can leave no sick person untreated” (2004, p. 61). I would guess that Waters would find no fault in extending this Hippocratic Oath more generally to all academicians detrimentally impacted by the “publish or perish” motto – humanists and scientists alike. One question that Waters insists must be asked on the road to improvement is “what is the relationship between thinking, scholarship and publication?” (2004, p. 78). Considerate contemplation of this quandary led Waters to the following conclusion: “there are too many people too eager to publish, and not enough people who are biding their time and letting a project grow great within them” (2004, p. 82). He goes on to say that “there are times when it is good to build up ideas, to play with them, and experiment with them and not rush them to print” (Waters, 2004, p. 83). This process is disrupted in the current publish or perish environment in which the rush to publish precludes timely, thoughtful consideration of many ideas – old and new alike.

The importance of generating new ideas and theories is lauded by Waters (2004, p. 86). He cautions, however, that the current environment of quick, frequent publishing is largely inconsistent with the thoughtful generation of novelty. This is also recognized by Sanal (2006) who states, “Creativity translated into generation of new ideas and concepts is the essence of science and this is getting diluted in the flood of publications.” Waters concludes his treatise with the profound statement supporting this viewpoint. He says, “I think our present mania for publication is a great insult to the dignity of thought, the dignity upon which the authority society might bestow on us is based. Deep thought does not always announce itself in shouts, but sometimes in whispers” (2004, p. 86).

“Enemies of Promise” is certainly no whisper. On the contrary it is a strong, at times biting, statement that inspires considerable contemplation of the interplay between the “publish or perish” aphorism and the current state of publishing and the impact(s) these two phenomena have on academic scholarship in all disciplines. For this reason among others, Lindsay Waters has generated profound, lasting reverberations through his contribution “Enemies of Promise”.


Clapham, P. (2005), “Publish or perish”, BioScience, Vol. 55 No. 5, pp. 3901.

Dictionary.com (2006), Unabridged (v 1.0.1), Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc.New York, NY, available at: http://dictionary.reference.com/search?q=iconoclast (accessed November 21, 2006).

Gad‐el‐Hak, M. (2004), “Publish or perish – an ailing enterprise?”, Physics Today, Vol. 57 No. 3, pp. 612.

Sanal, M.G. (2006), “Where are we going in science? Publish and perish!”, Current Science, Vol. 90 No. 9, p. 116.

Waters, L. (2004), Enemies of Promise: Publishing, Perishing and the Eclipse of Scholarship, Prickly Paradigm PressChicago, IL.

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