The (im)possibility of Academic Credibility

Science Reporter Spoofs

A recent post on the retractionwatch website ‘revealed’ that a journalist was able to successfully submit a ‘spoof’ article to a series of open access journals despite the article containing glaringly obvious errors.

Depending on who you are (the editors of said journals not being one) this is entertaining reading.  But is it news?  Is it revelatory?

I don’t think so.  I don’t think so because I feel it misses crucial points.

The unprofessional acceptance of such obviously bad scholarly ‘work’ should be a note of serious concern for the academic community, especially in an age when governments are all too happy to micro-manage our work.   As the UK media are now realising, the regulatory bargain whereby professions regulate themselves is a precarious ground upon which to establish oneself.  The more public scandal attached to professions the less self-regulation will be acceptable.  The key term here is ‘public’.  This does not mean an authentic public voice.  Public here means whatever is heated up in the fire of 24/7 news (including blogs).  If something can gain enough traction to be noticeable then the chances are the degree of self-regulation accorded a profession will be diminished.  We see this everywhere.  In the UK social workers and the whole social care field have been under intense public scrutiny because of yet another ‘failure’ to secure the wellbeing of a child, ending in their death.

Yes, there was systemic failure.

Yes, systems and training need to be improved.

But politicians and media comment on these tragedies as if they are not related to the wider political environment, to the dominant political ethics.  It is as if all of those decisions to cut or privatise public services have no consequence for the lives of those who should be served well by such professionals.

And so back to academic publishing.

The ‘scandal’ of online academic journals accepting hoax articles fails to note the true nature of the political economy of higher education.

It would be nice to think that academic publishing was primarily about the free exchange of scientific knowledge, whereby our peers could scrutinise our findings, assess our methodologies, and through collegial critique improve the lot of scientific inquiry, and by implication, improve our contribution to society more widely.  That is the myth.

The reality is rather different, and to me, is the real scandal.

Career progression and performance related funding are intimately linked and form the bedrock for such publishing scandals that ‘retractwatch’ deal with.

The particular elements that contribute to academic career progression will differ from one system of higher education to another.  But ‘publish or die’ is a key aspect to academic practice, and therefore job security, worldwide.  Where this works well the publishing record reflects an academic’s contribution to their field of study.  But, even here, it is not uncommon to see the same basic content distributed across a range of academic outputs in peer reviewed journals.  A little can indeed go a long way. In the social sciences for instance, a piece of work conducted in education could conceivably be written up for journals in a range of disciplinary areas – education studies, sociology, psychology, philosophy.  The motivated and ambitious academic could strategically place the same text in a range of journals on the understanding that they are unlikely use the same reviewers.  Of course, such strategists can come a cropper and be found out.  The reputational damage can be severe, and reputation is everything.  But there is an imperative to  publish, and the newer you are as an academic, the more pressure there is.  Another side to this is that acting as journal reviewers, indeed sitting on editorial boards, is good for the CV.  Taking short cuts can seem appealing when securing tenure is your main objective.  This pressure can increase when managers put pressure on you because they too are measured by the productivity of their staff (no matter how much the term ‘collegiality’ is used).

Linked to this is performance related funding.  It is increasingly the case that governments can nudge higher education into line through funding.  Although a degree of central funding is still quite normal around the world, some governments have also introduced elements of performance related funding.  Two areas where this is becoming increasingly evident is teaching and research.  By teaching I don’t really mean the evaluation of quality but rather the move towards student satisfaction surveys in determining levels of government core funding.  The good side of this is the attention it gives to teaching quality.  But in the real world Harvard, Oxford or Yale don’t really have to worry that much about how their teaching is judged because the fact you went to Harvard, Oxford or Yale counts a lot more on your CV that the poor teaching of Professor X.  Where this does impact the most is lower down the academic food chain, on intermediate institutions.

Alongside this is the rise of research as a quality judgement on academic institutions.  High research reputation attracts a lot of money.  It can attract a lot of money from governments looking for a good return on public investment.  We all teach.  We all do administration.  What differentiates one institution from another is research – both quantity and quality.  High research reputation can also attract the brightest faculty and students – and international student fees.  This leads to investment decisions within institutions and therefore what academic life feels like at an individual level.  If you are lower down the ranks this can be experienced as getting pressure from both ends – increased teaching, increased scrutiny of your teaching, and increased pressure to publish and attract research grants.  This can be pretty punishing.  You don’t want to have anything as frivolous as a young family while doing all that.  But, if you are reasonably successful as attracting research funding you can move all of that troublesome teaching and marking down the supply chain to part-time staff and post-graduate students.  In other words you can simultaneously reduce the unit cost of teaching and increase your own time to publish and conduct important scholarly activity such as editing and reviewing.

So, lets imagine a situation where an academic is fielding increased teaching due to the rise in student numbers; is conscious of needing to please their students (this doesn’t actually have to do with quality teaching as such which might not be necessarily pleasurable for students if it takes them out of their comfort zones); is dealing with pressure to publish; is trying to secure research funding; and is conducting their scholarly responsibilities by taking on the role of reviewer for a number of academic journals.

Is it really any surprise that poor, incorrect or bogus articles get published?

We, as a community of scholars, should do what we can to minimise such systemic errors.  But, the real scandal is that education, and higher education, has been made a commodity.  Any sense of the wider purpose of education in the cultivation of a whole person, an ethical citizen, is lost.

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