Related: What does "Publish or perish" really mean?

The issue of "Publish or Perish" is pretty much an accepted reality in Academia nowadays. When I look at history, however, I see that the Medieval university was far from this - that the average, say, 13th century academic was more invested in passing degree examinations, applying logic against the classics, and mastering pedagogical techniques (how to teach your own students) than in finding something truly new about the world and racing his rivals colleagues to publication.

At what point in history did "Publish or Perish" become a reality for the majority of academics? In no way am I challenging the concepts, only asking about the timeframe. Could an "average" academic in 1800 build a career by gaining advanced subject matter knowledge (e.g. being really really good at integrating by parts, balancing chemical equations, or identifying known species of birds by looking only at their feet), being good at debate, passing a lot of exams, etc., without discovering much (if anything) that was new in his field? What about 1850? 1900? When was the changeover?

My hypothesis would be that there was some sort of watershed event, perhaps similar to (or identical to) the radical change in admission requirements for US undergraduates that happened when large numbers of returning World War 2 veterans all wanted to (and could afford to) "go to college" at the same time.

Jon Custer made a good point about PhD awards exploding in the 1990's. The PhD degree itself might also be related. Since the PhD is inherently a research degree that requires a substantial original discovery (as opposed to other degrees that may be focused more on subject matter knowledge, professional practice, or pedagogy), an answer might consist in discovering when it became rare for someone to gain a professorial appointment without a PhD. This could be an example of Creeping Credentialism - that when everyone and their dog has a PhD, suddenly a PhD is required for all sorts of teaching (or even research) jobs that used to only require an MA or even a BA or below. The question would be, when was that? Could you become an English professor at Harvard in 1765 by walking in off the street with no degree, passing an advanced professor-level literacy test, and completing a six-week accelerated course in Ye Olde Modern 18th Century Best Practices in Contemporary Literature Pedagogy?

From a pop cultural/literary perspective, I was recently reading some of H. P. Lovecraft's fiction from the 1920's and 1930's and was shocked at the frequency at which his academic-background characters intentionally "lose" their research (oops) or at least don't seem to mind that they have lost years of potentially groundbreaking research. At some level I feel that he is intending to imply extreme gravity to the situation - that unleashing the knowledge of eldritch abominations upon journal readers is simply so unthinkable that it's worth shooting one's own career in the foot to prevent it, or whether his characters reflect a different era, one in which research was more of a fun diversion for academics bored of teaching (and thus not truly necessary to gain or keep a faculty post).

Note that I am not asking when regular journal publications or the practice of peer review first developed, I am asking when they became the sine qua non of Academia, that is, when one could no longer reasonably expect to achieve tenure if the only real publication one had was a degree thesis or dissertation.

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    I would postulate sometime in the mid-1990's as global PhD production increased while professor openings fell did not keep pace (lots of baby-boomers still working).
    – Jon Custer
    Sep 10 '19 at 20:28
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    Sorry, @JonCuster, long, long before that.
    – Buffy
    Sep 10 '19 at 20:42
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    @Buffy - no, not really, at least not in fields I'm familiar with. Certainly the 1960's were a golden time to be hired and tenured as a STEM professor. Departments were growing. Many that I'm aware of published steadily but not spectacularly. It was relatively easy to get long-term NSF grants that could be extended for decades. One might argue that by the stag-flation of the late 1970's things were changing. But, even in the late 1980's I had a number of classmates who did just fine. By the late 1990's things had definitely turned towards what they are now.
    – Jon Custer
    Sep 10 '19 at 20:47
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    @JonCuster, the reason for the 60's was the competition with the Soviet Union after Sputnik. Yes, departments grew fast then and NSF poured in lots of money. But it ended abruptly about 1971 after the moon landings. It was nothing but a bubble.
    – Buffy
    Sep 10 '19 at 20:49
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    Note the usage of the term over time on Google ngrams: books.google.com/ngrams/… it appears in the 30s and 40s, and absolutely explodes in the 1960s. So that's where my money would be.
    – BrianH
    Sep 10 '19 at 20:53

In mathematics, in the U.S., until the 1950s it was almost entirely the case that math departments were service departments to engineering and chem and physics. Teaching loads were high, and there was no expectation of "research" at all. Some people with M.S.'s were faculty, and some people with PhD's had "done no research" except their thesis.

In the early-to-mid 1950's, coinciding with the post-sputnik, post-Hiroshima era, apparently many math depts argued that individuals' teaching loads should be greatly reduced... so they could conduct research that would help "beat the commies" or whatever other enemies... and, concommitantly, they'd need lots more faculty lines.

Of course there was a boom time, perhaps of a decade or two, but then the pretense caught up with us all. E.g., Michael Spivak's multi-volume book(s) on differential geometry were published by "Publish or Perish" press.

Nevertheless, at a relatively high end of things, even into the 1980's, in math, in the U.S., it seemed and does still seem to me that people were judged more by their scholarship, reputation, insight, etc., than by paper-count. Yes, part of this was the considerable difficulty of creating a readable document pre-PDF, pre-TeX, pre-most-things. And, yes, pre-internet. Presentations at conferences, even without associated preprints, could make a person's reputation.

Many breakthrough results were first made public at conferences (in the lack of arXiv or internet generally), and, again, such stuff was what reputations were made of. "Publications" were mostly after-the-fact.


Harvard studied this issue in 1938, which was of course published, as: Report on some problems of personnel in the Faculty of arts and sciences by a special committee appointed by the president of Harvard university:

Quantitatively, 60 faculty testified that they were under undue pressure to publish, while 90 considered that such pressure was not undue or that they were not under such pressure.

The publication anonymously includes quotes from 28 of the 60:

The following statements and phrases are culled from the replies of twenty-eight men of these sixty, distributed among the several ranks as follows: assistant, one; annual instructors, nine; faculty instructors, eight; assistant professors, ten. They represent Biochemical Science, Physics, Biology, Anthropology, Economics, English, Far Eastern Languages, Fine Arts, Government, Music, Romance Languages, Psychology and Philosophy.

"Quantity rather than quality"; "forced-draught production"; "pinpoint studies of obscure and third rate authors"; "to attract attention outside the University"; "spectacular fields of research"; "early quantitative evidence of scholarly activity"; "problems which will give definite results in one or at most two years"; "a book is a book"; "mechanical fact of acceptance by a publisher"; "listing off with great fanfare the books and articles published by the department in each year"; "obviously mistaken emphasis upon mere yardage."

"The 'publish or perish' legend . . . has led me to publish material that could have been improved by further research." "This 'pressure' — and it cannot be described by any better word — I hold to be completely detrimental in both substance and manner." "I consider the pressure being brought to bear to publish at all costs a professional crime."

"____told me that a recommendation . . . must be well reinforced with publication. ... Its chief result has been to lead me to defer fresh complementary constructive work germane to [a] course ... in favor of revision of already completed manuscript." "The current opinion on the necessity of publication held by junior members of the teaching staff approaches the hysterical. . . . There must be some provocation for it." "I have come to the conclusion that to publish quickly and frequently is a necessity. A great deal of 'forced' scholarship is ground out of Widener these days."

"The indefatigable search after truth, which is surely a primary justification of the scholar's profession, is inconsistent with the hur-

[page 58] -ried, unsound, and imperfect results which so often obtain in forced publishing."

"Pressure to publish oppresses us all, even though it is not necessarily brought to bear in any form as concrete as a friendly tip or hard-boiled condition of permanent tenure. This pressure is without any question harmful to intellectual development in most cases."

"Very certainly it is now the common belief, whether justified or not, that one must publish if he is to win promotion. . . . Inevitably, then, my contemporaries resort to reports and accounts of fact finding which in the majority of instances are or very little value. . . . Their publications can only be described as printed matter and, being no more than that, they lie dead along the paths of literary study, exhaling a lethal atmosphere which is most disheartening to that particular kind of enthusiasm which should attach to the humanities."

"Within the last month I have received three letters from two distant universities asking me whether it was true as reported that Harvard . . . was hereafter demanding at least one book every three years."

"Emphasis on publication by the University is likely to increase quantity at the expense of quality." "I gather that number of pages published is the only general criterion of success." "This pressure on able young men to publish forces men to follow the sort of work done by their elders." "The announced policy of the administration was responsible for my embarking upon a special research project which promised to yield immediate results and did not." "Thus it was in friendship for me as well as in the effort to serve the department, that its chairman . . . used to call me into his office at intervals and give me what I can only describe as a kind of 'fight talk.' ... At the time, I thought he was right, took his talks all to heart, and in consequence . . . had a period of morbid self-accusation and self-distrust . . . which did my work less than no good."

"Publication of incomplete investigations merely for the sake of a title." "Volume is the thing that seems to make the most favorable impression." "It is my belief that the general pressure for publication which certainly exists at Harvard University is definitely harmful because it tends to force the substitution of the practical goal of professional standing ... for the much more important one of worthwhile contribution to knowledge and the jealous maintenance of intellectual integrity and rigorous scholarship."

"A man who is not doing much in the way of research or creative contribution to his field will not do anything worth while simply as

[page 59]

a result of being told that his promotion depends on it; the most this will achieve is the wholesale production of potboilers." "The real aim of research is lost sight of in the rush to publish." ". . . repeatedly and unpleasantly urged to publish."


Using Google Ngrams to search for the phrase "Publish or Perish", we see that the phrase seems to have entered reasonably widespread use in the late 1940s and peaked in the mid 1960s:

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Searching Google Books for the phrase turns up a number of earlier uses, but many seem to be mis-identified by Google (e.g. they suggest that Nature vol 362 is from 1869, whereas it was actually published in 1993).

However, Google Books did point me to this, published in 1935 in the Transactions and Proceedings of the Royal Society of New Zealand:

One of the aphorisms of Professor W. M. Davis, whose death was referred to at an earlier meeting to-day, was “Publish or perish.” Davis applied the remark to individuals, for he went on to say, “If it is worth doing, it is worth printing!” If no opportunity to print is afforded, then the well of inspiration dries up. It may also be applied to societies, for this generally disconsidered function of such a society as this is really the main stimulus to a vigorous existence.

So even if the phrase wasn't invented by Davis, it was in use, without needing detailed explanation, in the 1930s; but was still considered a relatively new concept at the time, since it could reasonably be ascribed as a quote from a single individual.

(Also, though it's hard to tell, this early use seems to be more positive than we're used to seeing.)

Wikipedia claims that it first occurred "in an academic context" in 1928, which fits with this timeline.

  • 1
    Great digging, and I love the context of the quote, as it seems to suggest the phrase may have actually meant that one should publish because otherwise the researcher will 'perish', not because of external pressure but because of a lack of inspiration and involvement. This is a very different meaning than the one we think about today! Important to consider the use of the term itself does not necessarily suggest the same environment we experience - context matters for interpretation, and multiple meanings can co-exist (as other answers show as well). +1
    – BrianH
    Sep 17 '19 at 15:38

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