When More Means Less in Higher Ed

I read somewhere that most academic articles in the humanities never receive a single citation. It seemed sad and odd, so I thought to look it up. It’s actually 92% that go uncited!

And yet social media is full of people advertising their latest papers or calls for more papers. Why? Well, obviously they’re proud of their hard work and want to let people know about it. And they’d rather like their hard work to be among the 8% of papers which do get noticed.

But most people connect with more than just other academics in their field, so they know that such posts might come across as a bit spammy to those not in the field of Higher Education. Like family or friends.

So why do they continue to do so? Because they are required to as part of their job.

Publishers will demand to know how academics intend to promote their work. And universities measure academics against things that are actually impossible for them to guarantee – the shibboleths of ‘impact’ and ‘outreach’ primarily. And these are counted in purely numerical terms – the clicks, the tweets, the retweets and reposts, but most of all the citations.

So there’s a lot of work being produced and hence a lot of people trying to get their voice heard in the shouting gallery of social media, pleading with anyone who’s listening to read their work, or even just click on it.

But yet I rarely hear anyone say that they READ a great academic article recently.

Since academia became a publish-or-perish game, it has incentivised academics to churn out endless articles but it doesn’t actually incentivise them to read any, except perhaps as footnote fodder for their own outputs. No academic is set targets for how much they will read in the forthcoming semester or year.

Universities don’t just apply arbitrary (and sky-high) publishing targets to academics. They also demand things it simply isn’t in an academic’s control to offer, ie impact, outreach, virality and citations. It all adds up to a lot of pressure, and undoubtedly affects the quality of the papers being written.

The downstream affects of this ought to be obvious, especially in fields and disciplines which move quickly and require scholars to stay up-to-date with the latest discoveries or thinking.

Now I no longer have work targets for publication set by paper-shuffling administrators, I’ve really come to appreciate the ability to read and learn.

Universities should find ways to incentivise academics to read more and write less. Students and scholars and the sum of human knowledge would all benefit. But then, the bean counters wouldn’t have anything to count, and would no longer be able to bully or overwork staff with arbitrary and often punitive targets, or metrics they have no way of being able to guarantee.

In most areas of life, you can pursue quantity or quality. If universities really want their research to reach people, inspire them, change the game of a research field, or make a difference to society or the public, then they need to facilitate time and space for academics to read, and let them deliver work that really counts