Publish and Perish: Why academia needs to accept other ways of showing impact in industry-based research projects

Academics have long accepted the doctrine of ‘publish or perish’ –  if you don’t have your work published in peer-reviewed journal articles, conference papers, or in edited books or monographs, your academic career will grind to a halt. Yet recent calls by the Australian Government through its National Innovation and Science Agenda focused on enhancing collaboration between industry and academia challenges the usefulness of sticking to the ‘publish or perish’ mantra. Although the federal government might be correct to say that “Australia’s rate of collaboration between industry and researchers (at 2-3%) is currently the lowest in the OECD”, changing that figure is going to require a new way of valuing academic outputs – and having that way accepted by the academics themselves and in particular academic institutional systems.

As part of a pilot study looking at collaboration between industry partners and academics, we interviewed a number of researchers who had worked on industry-based projects, which although primarily of a technical or engineering orientation, also involved some business or policy-related research foci.  What emerged is that, while most researchers demonstrated a strong commitment to publishing their findings in the traditional peer-reviewed forums, only two reported continuing to work with the same industry partners.

There was a general belief that, if an academic’s work is published in a traditional output, industry partners will also benefit. Examples were offered where information regarding potentially useful outputs such as measurement instruments and assessment tools was revealed in peer-reviewed journals. This was often valued by the academics as stronger impact than industry uptake. Presenting preliminary research findings at conferences was also seen as a useful strategy for promoting their academic careers. By contrast, industry respondents did not identify these communication mediums as their usual or preferred sources for new knowledge. Such practices point to a disconnect between the institutional drivers and expectations for research held by academia and industry. Academia traditionally focuses on creating formal knowledge and sharing it with peers via formal publications, while industry is driven by the search for new knowledge to address real-world problems. The poor alignment between expectations and outcomes between industry partners often resulted in a reluctance to sponsor future research.

For the most part, junior researchers shared the importance attached to traditional academic outlets.  Conferences were regarded good for their careers and some reported that, even if industry didn’t attend, they could always access these papers. There was a strong belief by academics that industry would be able to extract value from submitted theses. Yet, industry often struggled with the protracted time-lines required for research (some of which extended beyond the life of a partnership) or to translate academic jargon and findings into the real-world. Whether industry could find what they’re looking for in a dense and wordy thesis also remains to be seen. A recent workshop even suggested that industry expects academia to do the bulk of the translation effort for them.

Recent work on creating value for intended end-users of applied research indicates that the end-users need to be actively engaged in the value creation process. In essence, industry partners and the researchers create value together. The kinds of projects that we looked at adhered to a different logic. Project goals were agreed and the researchers got on with the research, but it was frequently reported that industry interest waned as the research progressed. Although the researchers produced reports and wrote journal articles and conference papers, industry didn’t appear to assign much value to them. Of course, there were probably many reasons why they lost interest, but a publishing emphasis could have contributed. For example, ‘achievements’ such as having a paper in a major conference are likely to make a partner wonder about the whole point of the research. An industry partner might reasonably ask “Why were you presenting a paper at a conference in Hawaii instead of to us? I want to know how you can help my business.”

It’s probably fair to say that the ‘publish or perish’ approach is a contributing factor to the difficulty of academics working in disciplines such as business and management, public policy and social science from establishing long-term, financially sustainable and mutually satisfying relationships with industry. Our exploratory research points to the need for academics to find other ways to filter through useful and adoptable outcomes. Communication can’t just come through journal articles. Industry-savvy academics are now starting to share findings via more immediate and accessible mediums such as blogs, Twitter or by contributing short ‘non-academic’ pieces to websites such as The Conversation or Power to Persuade.

The same academics are also translating complex research findings into Fact Sheets using plain language. These offer ways to distil information and invite a two-way flow of information and thought development. Such approaches increase broader engagement with research findings as rising levels of interaction take place, and may create impact via increased uptake or circulation of ideas. Although these efforts create value, they are not generally recognised as ‘academic outputs’. While “clear and transparent measures of non-academic impact and industry engagement” will be implemented by the Australian Research Council in 2017 to assess university research performance, thequestion remains whether they will do much to change an engrained academic culture.

If Australian universities are serious about forging the kind of industry relationships being increasingly demanded by major public research funders, they need to start understanding that there are others ways to assess an individual’s impact other than the amount of scholarly articles published. ‘Impact’ in such journals relates to impact on the academic community. In most cases, industry couldn’t care less. The days of ‘publish or perish’ as the major test of impact need to end. Whether that will occur depends largely on whether the academics themselves, being the ones who pass judgement on their peers on promotion or granting panels, are able to generate and accept new ways of determining the value of their contributions. Academics who continue to devote the majority of their attention to traditional publishing mediums might just find that they’re the ones who ‘perish’.


Associate Professor Michael Charles & Professor Robyn Keast, School of Business and Tourism, Southern Cross University. Professsor Robyn Keast's work is detailed on Networks and Collaborations.