The meaning of academic work.. revisited

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Is the writing on the wall for the REF?

For some time, along with others, I have questioned the value (not just to taxpayers) of an academic system that values the number of articles published (“..he has published more than 200 articles in academic journals”) or the fact that a colleague has published in a journal whose supposed standing is designated with a star (‘…she has been accepted in a 4* journal”), rather than looking at the contribution a piece of published work is actually making. We perhaps assume that the custodians of academic excellence, the editors and reviewers of 4* journals, ensure for us that a piece of scholarly work is of value. In the UK, for example, the criticisms directed at the Research Excellence Framework are getting a bit boring, as don’t we simply have to get on with it and conform with the requirements of the REF? Subject committees cannot possibly read every single article (perhaps not books) submitted to them to make a judgement on its contribution. I, for one, have added to my list of article publications in my CV the ABS ranking and SSCI impact score.

Yet what really brought home to me the damage that this might be causing was an article written by Andrew Oswald, professor of economics at Warwick University in the Times Higher Education (online here). To quote just a part of this, he writes:

“I see wonderful young scholars focused on publishing per se and obsessed with satisfying the formal requirements of the research excellence framework. People routinely talk in terms of journal labels rather than discoveries; promotion committees add up starred journals (“she has three papers in four-star journals, you know”). That is a palpable sign of intellectual deterioration. Where is the discussion of ideas? If the public truly understood, there would be outcry from the taxpayer. Conservatism in scholars is worse than useless. University researchers who primarily wish to please people are not likely to contribute much to our world.”

The online article is titled ‘In research, weird is wonderful’, with an original title of ‘If you create a Soviet-style planning system, you will get tractors’ (26 June 2014). I don’t particularly agree with this analogy (if you look at some of the creative achievements of the soviet systems in the sciences and the arts), but I do agree with the sentiment, when Oswald says

“Once the young come to realise how the game works, and of course they all have to pay mortgages, they will respond strategically. The young will produce large amounts of conservative research published in the anointed journals. I am afraid I see such conservatism – more and more of it in UK disciplines, departments and universities. That makes me unhappy.”

I’m going to remove those 3* and 4* (and some 2*) in my CV that I’ve carefully placed in brackets, along with the impact factor, after each of my articles, and replace them with a brief summary of the contributions each of these (as well as my books) have made to knowledge. I only hope that I will be able to find something to say!

I know this is only a very small step, and I know it isn’t going to change the system. But at least it might make me feel a bit better.

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