Saturday, March 29, 2008

Strange world of "publish or perish"

Many years ago when in graduate school one of the hot academia topics was "publish or perish" covering all the disciplines of the academic world: From Socrates to Einstein; Medieval reed instruments to high energy physics. Publishing was cool for the university: Status and external sponsors like the Federal Government, private enterprise, or individual philanthropic endeavors. Talk about stress. Interdepartmental memos cascaded from the chairman of the philosophy department to urge the professors to start writing "that" book or "monograph" that would shine some limelight and draw attention. Discretely hinted was the threat of loss of tenure or no pay raise. So, nervous professors jump started their somewhat lackadaisical posture and honed their writing skills, combed their egos, researched--and wrote that book. Result: Very little...for the book or monograph was publish by the university press and wound up stuffed on a dusty library shelf. There may have been peer approval, but little significance resulted. And the university was temporally placated. Today, the same situation still exists and I suspect in the realm of science that "publish or perish" was been replaced by "profit or perish"--the driving engine is dollar acquisition and, of course, status.

This appears to be a more complex issue than suspected. The following is a an umbrella article dealing with the dissemination of published scholarly materials via libraries and the electronic medium. Venues and areas of research are dividing and subdividing while costs of accessing this material is increasing--some as much as 350%.

"Publish or Perish--An Ailing Enterprise?"

Writing science books for the populace may not fall under the perspective of "publish or perish" but the display of the material can be crucial. Most citizens are not familiar or comfortable with the mathematics of physics--or any of the science for that mater and are somewhat put off and bored. It may even make them put the book down indicating only 12 worn pages or repeated reading in an attempt to make an understanding. How many pages does one have to read to say comfortably..."Yes, I have read the book." Stephen Hawking is a prime example of a publisher's admonitions. But for Hawking, it wouldn't make much difference anyway. Hawking was warned that for every equation included in his text [A Brief History of Time] the sales would be halved. Hawking acquiesced but added only one equation: "E=mc²". The books sales soared and I doubt that if Hawking included Maxwell's equations of electromagnetism or the Euler equation that sales would have slumped.

Any thoughts?

1 comment:

Timray said...

I read what i want and if things bore me or are beyond comprehension...i may back up and re-read. I might not this a feminine trait? just kidding! but i am grateful that so much of science in many ways has moved into the public. i might not agree with M-theory but it is a refreshing sign to seeing someone reading say Brian Greene or Lisa Randall, especially since they are a high schooler. The other day i saw a young lady with Wuthering Heights....not all intellectual activity is dead. is about time a professor can make more than the football coach.