Pressures in Research

As in any profession there must be measures of success. Universal forms of currency in science and engineering include publications, patents, and research grants. For example, authorship on peer-reviewed technical papers is often used as a measure of a scientist’s research ability and productivity – “more” publications published in “better” quality journals. Grant applications may explicitly require a list of five-to-ten recent (this means within the past five years) publications in the area of the proposed research study. Job applications, job reviews, and professional advancement are also based at least in part on one’s publication record. It is important to at least be aware of these pressures since even if you don’t feel they relate to you directly they may exert a very real albeit indirect effect on you and your work through those around you including your colleagues, your supervisor, and/or the culture and climate of your workplace. A good example of the indirect effect that these pressures exert is the unconscious alignment of many academic researchers’ interests and research programs to conform to those of federal granting agencies or to the needs of industrial research and development, which represent current or potential funding sources, or away from cutting edge research problems such as stem cell research that may challenge social norms.

“Publish or perish.” This is a frequently spoken adage that speaks to the importance of publication in building a successful academic career. Tenure and promotion are often awarded at least in part based on research accomplishments. The pressure tends to be strongest at graduate research universities but is also increasingly strong at primarily undergraduate institutions (colleges). As an undergraduate, you may feel pressure, too. Your advisor may unconsciously communicate the need to write up your work. You may unconsciously put pressure on yourself because you may want to present or publish your research work or perhaps obtain a satisfactory letter of recommendation for graduate or pre-professional school or for permanent employment from your advisor. The important point to be made here is that no matter how strong the pressure may be, it doesn’t justify or ameliorate unethical behavior.