While waiting in the veterinarian’s office to pick up my dog, Koji, I kept myself occupied by watching the colorful fish in a huge saltwater aquarium. Several of the fish looked like Nemo and Dory, a few had spiny scales and seahorses floated in the water above the corals. I thought about the symbiotic relationships and the benefits the inhabitants of the aquarium have with each other when Karl, a long-time colleague, walked in.

Karl has been a PT for 16 years, and like me, he also pursued a career in academia. His passion for research led him to work for a university, two years ago, where the triad of teaching, research and service is the credo. He also described the university’s expectation to publish or perish.

Karl and I spoke about our academic experiences. I told him how much I enjoy the challenges of educational administration, ensuring that we maintain accreditation compliance at all times. I also mentioned the excitement of thinking creatively to pursue enrollment growth, while maintaining quality education for our students.

Karl expressed how much he enjoyed being around his PT students, watching them master competencies and skills that he taught. But when I asked him about his research and publication activities, his demeanor changed from excitement to somberness. He expressed frustration with the system and how difficult it is to be published. He felt like a saltwater fish who is outside the aquarium and wants to jump in but is not allowed.

He shared with me the following rationalizations for his feelings:

  1. There seems to be an inner circle among PT researchers who eventually get published. He offered his observation that authors of published research tend to be close colleagues or have a mentor-mentee relationship. If you are not inside this circle, you are out of luck.
  2. It appears that peer reviewers of articles for possible publication are either mentees of those responsible for final approval of an article for publication or part of the inner circle. A few of them, he observed, were former students of their mentors, trained to replace their mentors once they reach retirement age. If you are not a mentee or part of the inner circle, you are out of luck.
  3. A hierarchy in publishing an article exists. If you are a newbie and are being mentored by someone who also needs to be published, you may end up being 2nd, 3rd or 4th author of an article, although you may be the one who conceptualized and implemented the research. If you are not willing to compromise your position in this hierarchy, you are out of luck.

Karl thinks these practices extended beyond writing articles and being published. Over the years, he has observed that recipients of prestigious professional awards were mentored by former recipients of the same awards. He said that you can learn a lot by listening to researching the names mentioned during acceptance speeches, which often reveals an interconnection.

Karl said these practices exist “in order to protect their legacies.” When I probed further what he meant by “legacies,” before he could answer, a Dalmatian puppy, as big as a pony, came running into the waiting area, toward the saltwater aquarium. As the owner gained control of the dog by grabbing its chain leash, the leash swung and hit the aquarium. The aquarium’s glass began to crackle, followed by what seemed to be a waterfall of gallons of salt water gushing unto the floor.

As we were picking up the gasping fish and seahorses from the floor and putting them into smaller aquariums, I told Karl that I may have found an answer to his publication issues: He could either continue attempting to break the glass wall of scholarly and academic publishing or build a “new aquarium of saltwater fishes” for himself. There may be more people like him out there who feel the same way.

As Karl carefully placed the last spiny fish that he picked up from the floor into its new aquarium, he said our conversation and the aquarium accident showed him what he needed to do. “I can start an innovative publishing platform for newbies like me and we can all disrupt and bypass the old legacy system,” he said.

As we both walked to the parking lot with our respective pets, I noticed that Karl’s gait reflected a man with confidence and a new sense of purpose.