“These unreasonable self-imposed provisions from universities no doubt stifle academic vitality, and are tantamount to the collective self-castration of Chinese graduate education.”
PhD and Master’s students need to publish a predetermined number of papers in ‘core journals’ selected by their institution in order to graduate. From 1999 to 2008, many famous scholars have criticized these demands from universities, including Wuhan University philosophy professor Deng Xiao-Wang (now a professor at Huazhong university of Science and Technology), Nanjing University Chinese professor Wang Binbin, and Xiamen University professor Yi Zhongtian. As we all know, official regulations on academic titles do not have similar provisions, but universities still impose them, as if they were an independent kingdom.
It has been ten years since this problem came to the surface, but academics are still complaining about it, and we PhD students still have to live with this rule, and suffer from it. As a PhD candidate in the arts, I wish to give the direct feelings of one of the players here.
I used to have faith in academia, I used to dream of wandering through the sacred halls of the academy like Confucius and Plato, but now, my faith has almost collapsed. When a PhD candidate discovers that there is a charge to publish a paper, and that the norm is for secret backdoor deals, then this academic journal taken over by price tags and clever deals is no longer a scared hall, but, to put it bluntly, a pandemonium, entirely devoid of all academic dignity! All reverence for the academy has gone from my mind: I come to regret my choice, and I feel a strong impulse to flee.
Today’s PhD students will become members of the academic body in the future. As quasi-scholars, the State gives them 1000 Yuan every month to subsidise their living expenses. Compared with the income of their friends and classmates of the same age who are already working, this is probably very little, but it’s not enough to discourage someone with real academic passion. But academic corruption, the fact that you need to pull all sorts of connections to publish a paper, and on top of that give up your meagre income as publishing fee, this is the last straw for us. This kind of academia has completely made us lose face.
In conditions like these, where they have no opportunities, PhD students have begun to flee in mass. Of the many outstanding PhD candidates around me, with solid knowledge and understanding of the theory, a majority have already decided to leave, either by joining the public service, or finding another way out. As far as I know, among PhD candidates, academia is no longer the first choice of career, and those who pursue research mostly do so by lack of other choices. How sad!
So, what is the reason why our doctoral culture leads PhD candidates to lose faith? The root cause is that higher education institutions compete with each other; and in order to increase their so-called ‘academic impact’, they set up these ‘damned provisions’ (in the words of Yi Zhongtian) forcing students to publish before graduation. These demands inevitably breed all forms of academic corruption, and lead to the collective collapse of faith in academia by PhD candidates.
I’m a PhD candidate in history. From a professional perspective, I can say that if many influential and important scholarly journals received my doctoral thesis, they wouldn’t even look at them, let alone publish it! The visible gap between the quality requirements of the institution and those of the journals are huge.
In my view, this gap is understandable. The Humanities have their own peculiarities: in general, they require long study, an accumulation of theoretical knowledge, and even a wide range of life experience before you can produce a high quality paper; this is also the consensus among the academic community. Huang Kan, the specialist of the Republican period, did not publish anything before he turned fifty, yet he’s now become a pillar of academia. But now, PhD candidates publishes thirty to forty papers while writing their thesis 还被个人和社会津津乐道, that’s ridiculous!
It stands to reason that a PhD candidate in the arts, when they haven’t yet finished their thesis, still needs to develop the ability to do independent research, that they need to assimilate the theory and gain solid academic training; they can, at best, only be regarded as academic beginners. Papers written while completing a thesis are mostly exercises, a way of tackling certain academic questions oneself, but the majority of these papers absolutely cannot reach the adequate level for publication.
Not mentioning the time required to write it, the ideal situation for publishing a paper according to normal channels is like this: after three months of peer-review cycle, the article gets in a queue, and it takes a year to a year and a half before it can be published. But in reality, you’re competing against articles by already mature scholars, and there is no way for a piece by a doctoral student to stand up against them: the editors of academic journals use the same criteria to judge the different articles submitted, and so the proportion of successful articles by PhD students is probably very small. Therefore submitting an article again and again to numerous publications is normal. And so, to publish a number of papers through normal channels before graduation is basically impossible (editor note: a PhD candidate requires at least one article published in a specialist journal, one article published in a general journal; as for publication requirements to receive a Masters degree, universities have different standards). For normal graduates, this is what breeds dishonesty.
Perhaps PhD candidates should keep themselves clean, but PhD candidates want to graduate, they want to survive, and so they have to publish in the ‘core journals’. The only choice for a PhD candidate with no relationships is to find a journal that will accept to publish their piece for a bribe.
The money spent on publishing a paper may come from reducing their living expense, but many journals have a big appetite, and it is normal for them to ask for five or six thousand yuan; and so the student’s only resort is to seek help from their parents. I once told my father, to publish a paper, the journals all want money now, and my father immediately said, how much? I will help you out. But my father is not a rich man, my father is just a farmer, who’s been working hard year after year on the Loess of the Northern Shaanxi plateau, and he makes just enough money to live decently, 至今我和妹妹上学的助学贷款还没有还上. I turned 28 this year, and at my age, not being able to honour your parents is a lingering fear, so can I let my parents waste this money on my behalf?
For us, to sit down and read quietly is a luxury, “十年磨一剑”似已成一个学术传说。 You only hear that publishing can earn you royalties, but before this happens, you need to pay to be published… the most important thing for us now is to publish, and everyone ‘laughs at poverty but not at prostitution'”, so spending money to publish a paper is normal, and only not graduating will make us ridiculous.
These unreasonable self-imposed provisions from universities no doubt stifle academic vitality, and are tantamount to the collective self-castration of Chinese graduate education. Such provisions will make us harvest academic garbage, lose faith in academia, and result in low self-esteem and lack of direction among the growing generation of Chinese scholars.
(The author is a PhD candidate at Renmin University )