The old saw ‘publish or perish’ is often derogatively used to account for the flood of publications coming from certain members of the academic community. A different, and less humorous, interpretation of this term applies, I believe, to some of those doing industrial research in private corporations.
While academics are under ongoing pressure to publish to obtain promotions and research grants, industrial scientists often face the opposite problem: they are discouraged from publication by management fearing that release of significant technical know-how must invariably benefit the competition. This can happen when a manager, not sufficiently familiar with the subject of a paper requested for release, finds that the simplest way out is to say no. It is true that such restrictions are sometimes justified, but my experience over several decades in industrial R&D suggests that these concerns are usually unfounded. My own professional experience has been with a major oil company, but I venture to guess that the observations I make here are hardly unique to this industry.
What happens to a scientist working in this kind of an industrial environment? As the years roll by, he writes technical reports, which are read by a few of his coworkers, but the research never faces the scrutiny of peers on the outside. A successful scientist needs to interact with his professional colleagues through the vehicle of written as well as oral publication: those who do not do this tend to become professionally ossified over time. Of course the employer loses as well: an unmotivated and insular R&D staff is unlikely, even unable, to come up with cutting edge results.
There is an additional and equally nefarious consequence of a restrictive industrial publication policy: a scientist’s worth in the job market is in large measure his publication record. Layoffs in industry have become an increasingly popular means to cut costs under the unrelenting pressure from investors. R&D often seems to be an early item to go on the block, and now the unknown, terminated industrial research scientist is left to fend for himself. He or she must compete with those better-known in their field by virtue of their publication record, and thus faces an uncertain and increasingly grim professional future. Clearly the best way for an industrial scientist to avoid falling into this trap is to make certain that the prospective employer’s practices include a reasonably open publication policy.
From the employer’s viewpoint, a reasonable publication policy makes even more sense: a company staffed by aggressive and creative scientists continuously interacting with their peers outside their own organization is much more likely to be successful over time than one which is obsessively secretive. A scientist remaining in such a restrictive environment is bound to perish professionally over time and lose marketability outside the company. As Matt Hall put it so aptly to me when I proposed this essay to him: ‘It’s ironic that preparing yourself to be laid off would probably lead to you not being laid off!’