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

Plagiarism kills

Plagiarism isn’t illegal, says this article. No, it isn’t, anywhere, but it ought to be. Because plagiarism kills.

I heard a decade ago of someone making six figures a year from writing papers for cash. That’s a big temptation for people struggling to get by as a postgrad or post-doc. And indeed, those who provide this service to cheats do get the tiny violins out to justify their decisions in the article linked above.

The bottom line is that everyone knows this is going on and is wrong. But universities simply don’t care, in their marketised, stack-students-high, sell-degrees-expensively model.

Academics are actively discouraged from challenging cases of plagiarism. It’s a ton of extra work, and often the students simply get a slap on the wrist anyway. Given the choice of reporting a suspected case, providing the evidence to a faculty committee, engaging in a formal investigation and then watching the student be told “don’t be naughty again” is sufficient discouragement for most lecturers, whose time is already at a premium.

But this approach isn’t good enough. Plagiarists devalue the degrees and credentials of their honest peers, and the vast market which has sprung up like foul toadstools to service those who’d rather pay than study is not simply ethically dubious but actively threatens the integrity of the entire educational system.

And it is a real issue for society. Do you want to drive over a bridge designed by an engineer who handed in other people’s essays to get their degree? Or would you like your child to be delivered by a midwife who did likewise? I am aware of cases of students who obtained degrees in both disciplines, and in many others, via consistent and continuous cheating in this manner. We must assume those graduates are in jobs now, in critical positions for which they are not actually qualified.

This is why you should care. It’s time to put the paper mills out of business for good, by making them illegal, and by properly punishing students who engage in plagiarism. Expulsion and a ban from higher education should be the minimum response.

Plagiarism has ramifications in many other areas too. Once uncovered, it generally leads to a significant loss of commercial, institutional or individual credibility and reputation. It’s hard to come back from. And of course, where authors have their work stolen (rather than sold), it’s literally beggaring people and thieving unearned benefits from the work of others.

But to create a truly anti-plagiarism culture, we need to start with education. Perhaps it may even be too late in the cycle to do so at university level, since reports of students plagiarising work in secondary schools is also rife in very many nations. But we badly need to start somewhere.

And if higher education don’t address their plagiarism problem, they will soon find their expensive degrees becoming more and more worthless, as more and more people simply purchase rather than earn those credentials.