April 18, 2018

The Inflatable CV | Peer to Peer Review

By Barbara Fister, Gustavus Adolphus College, St. Peter, MN

How the productivity problem hobbles the reform of scholarly communication

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Barbara Fister, Peer to Peer Review

Two recent stories in the Chronicle of Higher Education made me ponder one of the problems we face as we try to support the ongoing scholarly conversation. Though faculty members assume past research should be readily available to them, sustainability of the intellectual commons is not on the syllabus as they learn how to construct their scholarly identities.

The first story that got me thinking is a profile of Adrian Johns. His new book, Piracy: The Intellectual Property Wars From Gutenberg to Gates, has been getting so much press I suspect a clever publicist is at work behind the scenes. (The article, in fact, has what amounts to an academic cheesecake photo: the author bathed in a halo of light, perched high on a ladder surrounded by books.) The book examines ways in which piracy influenced modern culture and predicts that the concept of ideas as “property,” forged in the industrial revolution, is due for massive change.

It’s a hot topic, and the article suggests that his reputation, in part, was made by publicly jousting with Elizabeth Eisenstein, a preeminent scholar of the history of books and printing. She reportedly believes that Johns tried to “drum up a fight with her for professional gain.” "He’s not trained as an historian,” she says, though he is apparently credentialed enough to be teaching the subject at the University of Chicago.

Though Johns sees radical change in the works in the system of authorship, his audacious climb to the pinnacle of scholarly renown is a subtext of the story. Barthes was greatly exaggerating when he declared the author dead, and Johns’ current name-brand celebrity is proof that the system that he predicts will change is stubbornly persistent.

Publish or—
The second article that caught my eye is a collection of responses to the question “Is Tenure a Matter of Life and Death?” posed to various scholars in the wake of a murder spree at a faculty meeting by a woman who had been denied tenure. Respondents were asked “what are the psychological effects of academic culture, particularly on rising scholars? Can or should something be done to change that culture?”

None of the respondents said what I would have offered: “let’s all agree that far too much stuff is published.” What if we evaluated the work of our peers on their actual contributions to knowledge rather than the number of publications and the prestige assigned to them by an arbitrary and inaccurate algorithm? What if people were allowed to only submit the three most important artifacts of their scholarly work in their tenure files—no least publishable units allowed? A helpful side benefit would be that our libraries would be spared the expense of purchasing or renting volumes of publications that nobody wanted to produce in the first place, and researchers wouldn’t have to spend so much time trying to sort the teeny amount of wheat from the copious amounts of chaff.

Curiously, that elegant solution (which comes with a side of “get a life, already!”) was not on offer. Instead, respondents recommended more financial support for research, better working conditions, greater funding for travel to conferences, more tenure lines, and a correction to the neoliberal deregulation of PhD production by making higher education publicly funded. A comment by Daniel Drezner, professor of political science, made me wince. “People exit doctoral programs with a single goal—becoming a tenured professor at a research institution,” he said. “Those heretics who stray from that goal risk becoming nonpersons in their fields.”

I know a lot of “nonpersons” at liberal arts colleges who are consummate professionals, dedicated teachers, and creative scholars. They are as interested in their students as they are in their careers, and they choose their life path accordingly—just as we choose them. (“Persons” who would rather be at an R1 institution don’t make it through the interview process.) Yet even our faculty feel pressure to publish because it’s the “industry standard.” Published units are the only measure of a scholar that counts in the current inflated marketplace of ideas.

Tenure by the numbers
All of this underscores an urgent issue that we need to face if we are going to reform scholarly communication. We have allowed knowledge to become a commodity and publication a debased currency by which we establish our value as people. That emphasis on mindless and ever-increasing production of units has warped the world of ideas in strange ways.

We have outsourced the work of evaluating our peers to commercial publishers. We assign value to scientists based on how much revenue they bring the institution. We have accepted the notion that fame is what counts and conceded that creating new revenue streams and a strengthened market position is the sole purpose of our institutions. We are encouraged to market ourselves as brands, and the dark arts of identity management are inculcated as an introduction to the scholarly life in graduate school: which journals count? How can I successfully seduce a university press with a sexy proposal? What connections should I cultivate at conferences? How can I land that first million-dollar federal grant? What will my research contribute to the greater good?

Whoa, hang on. That last question—dude, that wasn’t covered in class. It’s not going to be on the test, is it?

Sadly, no. Even those critics who complain about the corporatization of higher education fail to examine their own publishing practices as a symptom of the commodification of knowledge. We chafe against the marketing of higher education, but feel trapped into selling ourselves. There should be only one question related to scholarship on the tenure test, and it’s not “how much did you publish?”

It’s “what difference does it make?" 

Barbara Fister is a librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College, St. Peter, MN, a contributor to ACRLog, and an author of crime fiction. Her next mystery, Through the Cracks, will be published by Minotaur Books this year.

Read more Newswire stories:

The Scientific American Brouhaha: a Q&A with NPG’s Steven Inchcoombe

New Mexico State Must Cut Materials Budget by 27%

Librarians at McMaster University in Ontario Vote to Unionize

O’Reilly Media’s Tools of Change Conference Highlights Copyright, Digital Textbooks

Experts Offer Predictions Regarding Internet as of 2020

Peer to Peer Review—The Inflatable CV

From the Bell Tower—For-Profits and the Search for the Key to Better Retention


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