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

Why did the office manager for the Mauritian Police Complaints Commission offer to vanity publish an academic book based on research that I haven’t even finished yet?

You might recall my Rule of Academic Emails, which I introduced previously.

It states: If someone sends you an unsolicited email asking you for money in return for promising to assist your academic career, what they’re offering is unlikely to assist your academic career and may actually hinder it.

But what if they don’t ask for money? Well, then things can get interesting. Let’s take today’s mailbag as an example. Out of the blue, unsolicited and with no previous engagement or interaction, I received an email from a woman called Hiteesha Bachoo, who works for an entity called Lambert Academic Publishers, inviting me to submit an academic monograph to her.

Now, sometimes legitimate academic invitations do occur. Mostly they occur to senior academics who are already very prominent in their fields. They get invited to give keynote lectures at conferences, and to contribute chapters to edited collections of essays, because their very name and presence, not to mention the likely quality of their work, adds kudos and prestige to the whole event or publication.

But it’s possible for little people to get invitations too. If you are one of the few people in a very niche specialism or with very particular interdisciplinary expertise, you might get an invite out of the blue to give a talk or publish in a special edition of a journal, or an edited collection.

Usually these kinds of invitations, to mere academic mortals, come from people who already know you and/or your work. But very rarely a legitimate invitation comes entirely out of the blue. I was once invited by the very prestigious Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin to take part in an event on weird fiction, and was delighted to do so. They flew me over, put me up in a nice hotel for a few days and even paid me. So it can happen. Here’s the proof:

Beardy weirdy me in Berlin a few years back. The beard is gone but the weird remains.

Anyhow, let’s get back to Hiteesha’s email. She gets straight to the point immediately (presumably because she’s got a lot of other emails to send, but also perhaps for another curious reason which we’ll get to later).

Dear Jim Clarke,

publish your own book based on your research titled"  “The Lingua Franca of the Hedgerow”: Lapine Linguistics and Invented Languages in Watership Down ". New publications contribute to the development of the academic market.

I am Hiteesha Bachoo and represent Lambert Academic Publishing, one of the biggest academic publisher worldwide.

Your book will be published at no cost, with print-on-demand technology and distributed on Amazon, Morebooks, Hachette, Publishers Graphics etc.

Jim Clarke would you accept to receive more information about publishing your own book?

You might have questions or need details about publishing, so let me know how can I be of help.

Hiteesha Bachoo   Sincere regards,
Hiteesha Bachoo
LAP Logo

So, she’s not looking for money, or at least not yet. My immediate presumption was that some mention of charges would occur down the line. After all, the usual procedure is that authors approach publishers with book proposals. I know because I’ve written two in the past six months, and I’ve done so multiple times in the past. That doesn’t mean it can’t happen that a publisher might approach an author, but it’s certainly not the usual vector.

So, I did my journalistic due diligence. I googled LAP, and then I googled Hiteesha. Let me summarise what I found. Firstly, NOBODY recommends publishing with Lambert. As this discussion on ResearchGate indicates, they spam an AWFUL LOT of academics, and their book production is low cost, low value and generally considered to severely devalue academic work. Their books rarely if ever get cited either.

In fairness to them though, no one seems to have been asked for money on that thread. Despite that, they and their parent company OmniScriptum Publishing were listed on Beall’s famous list of predatory publishers, but as an imprint of a vanity press rather than out-and-out predators. Eventually I found my way to this article from a decade ago, which includes loads of interesting information and background on Lambert, plus links to half a dozen more articles about Lambert.

Basically, universities, research advisors and higher education research councils on at least four continents have been advising students not go anywhere near Lambert, despite their lack of charging. They WILL publish your book, and they will do so for free. They won’t edit it. They won’t proofread it. They will do absolutely bare minimum design work on it. They won’t promote it in anyway. They’ll simply prep the copy structurally for print-on-demand and then pocket any sales that come in.

Additionally, there is some dispute over whether they even claim copyright, but as that often happens in academia, at least at the journal level, it really wouldn’t surprise me. In effect, you’d be better off self-publishing your work on Kindle or Lulu. At least then you might get some money from sales and you’d retain your copyright. But from an academic perspective? Worse than useless for your career. A waste of your research. A devaluing of your reputation.

I did mention that I also googled my correspondent, Hiteesha, and how her email seemed extremely rushed as if she was very busy. Well, she clearly is. I found her on LinkedIn, where she transpires unsurprisingly not to be an academic at all. She holds a BA in Marketing from the University of Mauritius. Additionally, while she does fess up to working for OmniScriptum as a “Freelance Acquisitions Editor”, her day job is as a management support officer with the Mauritian Independent Police Complaints Commission.

Additionally, she’s currently overtly looking for work, in office management or digital marketing, but she’ll even consider data entry work. The poor woman is basically doing this work as a side hustle. She’s almost definitely paid on commission of the sales of the books she recruits. No wonder she wants another job, and no wonder she spent very little time on my email. She’s clearly got a lot more to send, plus an office to manage in Mauritius in the morning.

How do I know she spent very little time on my email? Primarily because the paper mentioned in it, the one on Lapine linguistics in Watership Down, hasn’t appeared in public in any form yet! It hasn’t been published anywhere because it isn’t finished!

The research will only be presented for the first time later this month at the Critical Plants and Animals Studies Conference in Cappadocia. A more developed paper is also in preparation for the forthcoming Watership Down anniversary conference to be held at Glasgow in September. (You’re more than welcome to tune in to either conference and critique the work incidentally! Better still, attend both and see the interesting additions we have in store for the second iteration!)

Yes, I did say ‘we’. Because this is CO-AUTHORED research which I am conducting with the estimable linguist Hülya Mısır. Who coincidentally did NOT get spammed by Hiteesha, or anyone else at OmniScriptum. Bit sexist of them if you ask me.

Anyhow, what’s the moral of this strange story? I can think of a few. You should always check and double check any unsolicited academic invitations. The shady corners of the academic publishing industry extend quite a distance back in time and are somewhat persistent. Someone’s making money out of this, and it isn’t the researchers or indeed the poor hustlers working on commission. Oh, and office managers in Mauritius should be paid better, so they don’t have to do this in their spare time.

Pulp Satori

This is, I suppose, the first evidence of the work on Buddhist Futurisms that I’ve been doing for the past half decade or so. It had an eventful pre-publication history, actually. At one point, it was destined for a book, but that failed to transpire. On another occasion, it was repeatedly sent back for corrections by Reviewer Number Two (accursed be thy name!) for failing to cite his (it was a he) own research. Which wasn’t remotely relevant.

Anyhow, this is the overly-detailed explanation for why this is only appearing something like four years after being written. I’ve not been lazy. There is much more to this project, including multiple other publications already scheduled.

But it is gratifying to see the first bit in print. Last year I missed out on a big scholarship, primarily because there was no evidence I knew anything about Buddhism or had ever researched it. So at least now that evidence exists, albeit a little later than useful, to me anyhow, but hopefully not for others.

It actually tells an interesting story, which is not something one expects of academic writing generally. It’s a positive story too, of negative stereotypical preconceptions being overturned by a cultural encounter which shapeshifted into an ongoing interaction of mutual benefit between Buddhism and the West, and America in particular.

I hope you like it, if it’s of interest to you.

Sokal Squared come out fighting

The so-called ‘Sokal Squared’ collective who effectively trolled a series of journals a few years back with spoof articles intended to satirise the methodologies, findings and content of social science journals, have been defending their work.

By way of aide-memoire for anyone who doesn’t recall the ‘Grievance Studies’ debacle, in 2017 and 2018, three academics submitted a range of papers for submission to academic journals primarily dedicated to topics such as cultural, queer, race, sexuality and fat studies. The academics – Peter Boghossian, James Lindsay and Helen Pluckrose – contended that the level of scholarly standards in these journals, and indeed in those fields, was low and eroding the reputation of academia generally.

Thumbnail of video Academics expose corruption in Grievance Studies.jpg
Lindsay and Pluckrose, chuckling over the content of one of their bogus articles

When some of their articles were published, they went public to condemn what they saw as poor academic standards in these fields, and critique what they termed the prioritisation of ‘social grievances’ over rigorous academic scholarship. Their contention was that certain fields were underpinned by the assumption of certain grievances, and the scholarship which took place within those fields amended and adapted theories and findings to reinforce those grievances.

The reaction was varied; they received praise from some quarters, including some of the journal editors themselves, but they were also on the receiving end of serious criticism for what many perceived as unethical behaviour. After the debacle reached the pages of the New York Times, Boghossian was even investigated by his own employer in relation to academic ethics.

This current paper, some years on, in the journal Sociological Methods and Research, suggests that the Sokal Squared authors are still not happy about how their experiment was received. In response to a journal article supporting them last year, they have come out with this latest attempt to explain their methods and motives. I expect likewise that there are many people working in those particular academic disciplines who remain unhappy with the ‘Grievance Studies’ papers experiment in the first place.

Mostly, I’m noting this because I cited most of these papers in one of my own, an article which also aimed to highlight what I perceived as a shoddy corner of academia engaged in dubious practices, which could best be highlighted by actually engaging with the process of submitting a paper.

My target was, I think, much less ambiguous than that of Boghossian et. al. I took aim at the predatory open access journals which have sprung up in recent years, looking to prey on primarily emerging academics and academics from developing nations by charging sky-high article processing fees. In order to highlight that my article was a hoax, I cited not only the Grievance Studies articles which had made it into print, but also Sokal himself, the granddaddy of the practice, whose 1996 spoof of postmodern cultural studies led ultimately to a book, and an argument with Jacques Derrida.

I think I was able to categorically demonstrate the shoddy and debased academic practices, if you can even call them that, of these journals. I’m not entirely convinced that the Sokal Squared team made their case as definitively, but in this latest article, they do manage to convince that theirs was a serious attempt to expose what they felt was of serious concern.

In short, it wasn’t a hoax, folks.