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By Claire Aitchison

Recently in a workshop for doctoral students I posed the question ‘Why would you be interested in publishing during your doctorate?’ Given the amount of work involved and the uncertainty of success, just why would you bother?’

Of course I had already prepared the handout which gave the usual answers to this question – that is, that publishing is a good thing to do because it can:

  • Disseminate your research
  • Contribute to your profession/ community
  • Mark your territory
  • Build your public profile
  • Advance your learning/thinking/research/thesis
  • Develop writing skills and publishing know how
  • Build your career path
  • Provide personal satisfaction, and,
  • May have financial benefits

In the discussion generally all of these points are raised, and usually we have a laugh about how unlikely one is to benefit financially from publishing. Indeed, some scholars pay to get their work published (eg ‘author-pays’ Open Access publishing  or self publishing).

But this time, in this group of mostly international students, there was a very different discussion around the financial benefits of publishing during doctoral study. For example, one of the students said she had received approximately $AUD2,500 from the Indonesian government for each article in an international journal and $AUD2,000 for publishing locally. Another student, from the Middle East, said he too received similar reimbursement from his government for publishing. The Australians, on the other hand, were aghast – none of them stood to personally receive any financial benefit from publishing in scholarly journals.

The question of financial benefit from scholarly publication is an interesting one.

There is no doubt that Australian institutions benefit from doctoral student publishing. For example, Australian universities earn significant income from publications which are factored into federal government block funding  calculations.  In addition, of course, high publication rates that are equated with ‘research output’ build an institution’s reputation, which in turn increases the chances of winning grants and attracting high-profile scholars – and more doctoral students.

Some institutions reward academics directly for their publications. One Law faculty in NSW pays up to $AUD12,000 per person per year, a South Australian institution pays $AUD1,000.00 per publication, and so on. I don’t know of anywhere where supervisors receive financial benefit for helping their students publish.

There’s serious money to be made through doctoral publication. But how fairly are the spoils being distributed? Who is receiving the benefits from the armies of writers, reviewers and editors who mostly labour for free? And there are also other, non-monetary considerations flowing from this ‘push to publish’.

It seems to me that the imperatives around academic publishing are skewing doctoral scholarship and supervision, re-prioritising research choices, workloads and pedagogical practices. For example, another student at this workshop who had not long before arrived from China, already had one publication written and accepted. Furthermore, they had deliberately chosen a research project mining existing data, to enable them to fast track publications.

Such pro-publication strategies and research decisions aren’t necessarily problematic – but it is important to recognise and debate their impacts.

In some countries, doctoral candidature includes a requirement to publish. In Australia most doctoral students are not required to publish to fulfil the requirements of their degree, yet, the global competition for jobs means that many feel compelled to begin building a strong publication record as soon as they can.

Some students are lucky enough to work in research clusters where writing for publication is integral to the practice of research. Some students have supervisors ready, willing and capable of supporting them. Some supervisors are able to assist students to dovetail writing for publication in with the writing of the thesis and in with the research practice itself. Some supervisors are happy to mentor students, co-authoring with them or assisting them through the publication process. Sometimes students find assistance outside of the supervisory relationship, for example, through courses or writing groups.

Despite the benefits institutions accrue from doctoral student publishing, I remain surprised by how many students are left floundering – dead keen to write for publication but lacking the necessary support, skills and know-how.  Financial incentives are no substitute for proper institutionally sanctioned, pedagogically sound practices.

If we truly recognise the importance of publishing research – its benefits for the knowledge economy, our institutions and doctoral researchers, then how can we best support those who do publish, and from whom institutions benefit so handsomely?