What Does “Publish or Perish” Have to Do with You? More than You Think

To publish or perish--that is not the question.

Posted Apr 26, 2010

     Most people hate to write. Even more people hate to write things other people read. And then there's a group of people, who seem normal in most respects, but who spend their lives trying to convince people to let others read what they've written. Believe it or not, you're part of what keeps them going.
     "Publish or perish" is one of those witty little phrases people usually hear in college. I remember hearing it for the first time. My college professor described a process in which people earned temporary employment at a college or University, tried to publish papers, and, if successful, they were allowed to stay. If they failed, they were kicked to the curb.
    At that moment, shivers raced down my spine. In my mind's eye, I imagined trying to write (something I hated, at that time), having no success, and ending up eating leaves in the forest because I couldn't get anyone to read anything I had written. Like most fears, mine was no more than a ghost---after all, you're reading this and I haven't eaten a leaf yet.
     Why would people sign up for this sort of job? And more important, what does this have to do with you? The answer to the first question is simple: people like to do work that they find rewarding. Just why they find it rewarding is where you come in---you, the reader, can give writers the acceptance that is so fundamental to human psychology. Whether this involves clicking on a blog title (most bloggers can see how many people click on their stuff), posting a comment on a blog entry (most bloggers read the comments), or just taking the information with you and passing it on to others (the best of all rewards), readers have the power to give writers the best medicine the world has ever known---a sense of social connection.
     Acceptance isn't always easy to earn. Most of the papers I submit get rejected. Eventually, most of them find a home. Sometimes this is a struggle, other times it's a breeze. Last week, for example, I received an acceptance letter for a paper at my field's top journal. It took exactly 3 years between the initial submission to final acceptance dates. At several points during the process, I wanted to give up. My colleagues kept me going, giving me motivation to trudge on. I knew the paper was going to die a slow, painful death. But it didn't. At some level, I wanted to earn acceptance.
     So, I've gained a better understanding of the phrase "publish or perish." It doesn't mean what I thought it did. It isn't meant to scare anyone. It doesn't mean that if you receive rejection letters that you're on your way to eating leaves in your local park (if that were true, I would be part koala bear by now). It simply illustrates a very simple, yet profound, point: by getting others to read your work, you experience some feeling of belonging.
     To be sure, people experience acceptance in many different ways. And the lengths that people go to gain this acceptance are incredible, sometimes involving pain and humiliation. Don't believe me? Ask your friends and family about the most extreme things they've ever done to gain acceptance. You'll find that writing doesn't have the market cornered on the odd things people do to feel like they belong---or the satisfaction they experience after experiencing acceptance.