I recently read an article by David Colquhoun in the Guardian titled Publish-or-perish: Peer review and the corruption of science. It’s well worth reading but what struck me was how we have got to the ridiculous situation that we are currently in and the part that senior academic managers have played in directing us there.
Here is a little case study of how the drive to churn out ‘research’ publications has contributed to the decline of the academy. The story is completely true although the names have been changed to protect the guilty.
Several years ago I was unfortunate enough to meet a young academic who joined my institution from industry. He was, and probably still is, a skilled writer and a hard worker. That’s probably his entire list of positive attributes.
Let’s call him Phil because it’s nice and short and easy to type. Phil arrived at my institution as lecturer on a mission, a mission he achieved spectacularly. Although still without his PhD he embarked on an apparently prolific writing spree and played what he, very openly, called the Game.
The objective of the Game is to produce as many publications as possible within the shortest period of time and achieve rapid promotion as a result whilst paying no attention to any of the other scholarly activities associated with working as an academic at a university.
Here are the four basic approaches to play the Game as described to me by Phil:
1. The Multiplier
Associate yourself with three or four similar academics, preferably at other institutions. Each writes a paper and puts all four names on it. Instantly one publication becomes four. OK you don’t a first authorship every time but it’s still an output on your resume.
2. The Rapid Data Gatherer
Find yourself another early career academic, maybe fresh from industry who is struggling through a research masters or PhD. They’ve got some data but they’re struggling to write it up. Offer to collaborate in producing publications. It’s a win win situation. They get some research output which helps them but you get access to their data. After all, you have to have some data based articles occasionally. You can’t keep churning out position papers all the time. Or can you…..
3. The Repeater
Publish the same basic paper in multiple journals with only slight variations in the content. There are so many disciplines that you can often put stuff into technically focussed journals and with a modicum of rewriting it can also go into a management journal and let’s not forget all of those regional journals that would love your paper.
4. The Avoider
On no account do anything else. Make sure you put minimal effort into your teaching and learning activities and never do any administration or community work. Remember that quality learning and teaching is worth nothing when it comes to promotion at a university.
Using these methods Phil produced close to a hundred ‘refereed’ papers in his first 18 months at the institution and achieved rapid promotion from lecturer to senior lecturer (still without his PhD) and doing minimal, and by all accounts, dreadful teaching.
Shortly afterwards he was made an Associate Professor and was the golden boy of the department whereupon, of course, he left to take up a Professorship at another institution. I still wonder whether the senior managers who promoted Phil so rapidly felt slightly used and cheapened at that point. Sadly I suspect not. They certainly should have.
Phil played the Game magnificently and was rewarded for it. Many years later I noticed an extensive newspaper article about him winning an award from some journal referencing database or other. Looking at his profile at his current employer I noticed with a smile that Phil no longer lists all of his publications. In fact he lists hardly any. But then, of course, why should he?