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  • Courtney Onstad, M.Sc.

Publish or Perish?

A fundamental problem exists at universities; publications are prioritized over public service and teaching. At first glance, this seems logical. Publications, citations, and impact factors are what bring financial resources and prestige to a university: key ingredients for a successful business, sorry, university. However, when we consider the role of the university in society, the argument for publications as the primary metric for faculty advancement seems less robust.


In Canada, we attend public universities funded through taxpayer dollars. The original intent behind this was that education and scholarship should be equally accessible to all. In scrutinizing the mission statements of Canadian universities, “public” and “community” are commonly mentioned.


To inspire the human spirit through outstanding achievements in learning, discovery, and citizenship in a creative community, building one of the world's great universities for the public good.– University of Alberta, 2021


In many cases, these terms are listed before any mention of “research”. Presumably, this signifies a strong relationship between university institutions and the public. The idea that universities were created to bridge a gap between the academic community and the public is well summarized in Chapter 4 & 5 of Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s “Generous Thinking: A Radical Approach to Saving the University”.


I shall never be content until the beneficent influence of the University reaches every family of the state. This is my ideal of a state university. If our beloved institution reaches this ideal it will be the first perfect state university.“ – Van Hise, 1905


Bridging the gap sounds great, in theory! Unfortunately, faculty members who see value in their public/community service are not provided specific guidelines on how their efforts affect their career track.

To understand the relationship between universities’ missions and how faculty members operate, we can look to RPT (Reappointment, Promotion, and Tenure) documents. These are used at Canadian institutions to assess the accomplishments of faculty members and are instrumental to their career advancements.


In general, scholarly activity, teaching, and service are three common criteria evaluated. The associated “weighting” of these criteria varies by institution, but typically, scholarly activity and teaching are weighted higher (see section 3a note), and service tends to be listed last on every institution’s RPT guideline documents.


1. Academic Credentials

2. Teaching Ability and Performance

3. Knowledge of Discipline and Field of Specialization

4. Research, Scholarly and Artistic Work

5. Practice of Professional Skills

6. (a) Contributions to Administrative Responsibilities of the Department, College or University

(b) Contributions to the Extension Responsibilities of the Department, College or University

7. Public Service and Contributions to Academic and Professional Bodies

-University of Saskatchewan, RPT Document


If service is typically listed first in University mission statements, why is it listed last in almost every RPT guideline document? Phrases such as “Publish or perish” have developed based on this mindset that publishing is the only way to excel in an academic career.


In many cases, community service initiatives are poorly defined and tied to service contributions within the academic community, rather than the public. While this is important, there is a definite sense that no authentic representation of service to the public exists in the RPT process.


So, what’s the answer? Can we find a better method to evaluate public service? Should it be considered equally important as research? How do we go about making our voices heard at a university if we have questions/concerns on the RPT process?


Though I wish I could provide a straightforward answer, that would be naive. However, a few options to consider exist. Many evaluation approaches are subjective, competitive, and fall back on ranking individuals with numeric values. The HuMetricsHSS is leading the way by creating workshops, based on research, which use a value-based approach to evaluations. This essentially allows institutions to make evaluation processes align with their core missions.


Another option is having departments create positions specifically for science communicators. Science communicators are essentially the bridge between the scientific community and the public. There have recently been calls for job creation for individuals who specialize in #SciComm. This would lessen the burden on researchers, while helping the university achieve its mission statement.


What I envision is a future where departments reflect their university’s mission statements. This future involves departments determining if they want all faculty members to be active in scholarship, teaching, and public service. Alternatively, some faculty members could have stronger scholarship/teaching components, while also hiring on a science communicator who actively collaborates with faculty members. That collaboration can be considered as public service during the faculty member’s RPT process. When it comes to RPT reviews, departments could use value-based evaluations to gauge successes. Of course, with a scenario such as the one described here, there are other issues that would need to be addressed, for example, limited funding.


Regardless of proposed solutions, these concerns need to be brought to the attention of those who govern the university. At most Canadian universities, decisions like these lie with the Board of Governors, which also includes faculty and student representatives. Having these representatives offers an opportunity for voices to be heard at the Board of Governors level. With that in mind, I think those who want to voice their opinions/concerns, should initiate a dialogue with these board members and bring forward their ideas.


Whether you yourself believe that public service is or is not an important role within the university, it is hypocritical of universities to highlight their intent of connecting research with the public, but not following through with supporting faculty members who do this work. We have an opportunity here. We can continue down a path of “Publish or perish” or we can transform our institutions to reflect their mission statements and reward faculty members who work towards those missions.