Commentary: Publishing, Perishing, and Other Inanity

Posted on May 18, 2011

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Okay, this is going to be a long one, and pretty deep in the academic politics/pseudo-economics/pseudo-game theory shit.

Good piece in Slate yesterday that addresses, in a round-about way, some of the qualms I’ve been having with the world of academia, innovation, and thought. I love the concept of academia, of locking away brilliant and passionate people to help influence and challenge the ideals of young minds and to dream up fantastic projects to change the way we think about the world. I’ve had the great pleasure to meet men and women at Columbia University who have revolutionized their fields and who have done work accessible to those beyond the doors of the Ivory Tower. But for every fantastic leader I meet in the Ivy League and other academic institutions, I meet a dozen or so absolute stinkers.

Here’s the trick about academia and the life of the mind: it’s hard to actually become an academic and achieve the security to pursue innovative and challenging new projects. I chalk the bulk of it up to the Publish or Perish culture of academia in concert with the glut in higher-education graduates. Let’s look at it like a simple economic equation:

Doing something earth shattering and truly brilliant usually involves a level of risk and high investment—you need a big lab and can’t give a firm promise to the person providing you with that lab that you will be able to do anything fantastic with it. Or you need someone just to pay your expenses while you dive deep into research that may yield nothing; the cost of examining a new archive or investigating a new narrative is not insubstantial, and it may well be incredibly fruitless.

Universities hire massive numbers of instructors, but the only ones really able to pursue a life of the mind and make these kinds of risky experiments and inquiries are those with tenure. Tenure is heaven; it’s a secure income and the backing of the institution. Getting tenure is getting made in the mafia.

But to get there you have to prove your value to an institution by producing a steady stream of contributions to your field. Usually the only way to produce those contributions on a regular basis and at any volume that is competitive with others vying for a tenure position is to pursue small and safe projects, to build slowly off of pre-existing work or modify and critique segments of it, usually to the point where advances are tiny and limited in their impact beyond one’s immediate field. This kind of niche track makes academic achievements inaccessible to a vast chunk of society (physically and intellectually).

Publish or perish is thus a disincentive for innovation, large-scale reform, new projects, paradigm breaks, or deep and long-term projects. Publish or perish culture decreases the relevance of the work of academics to those outside of their fields. But in order to achieve tenure and prove their worth, publish or perish demands that professors-in-training take their incremental and cautious results and champion them as awe-inspiring, as the limits of innovation, as game-changers. This lowers the bar substantially for what is worthwhile work and makes truly worthwhile projects seem more far-fetched.

Once one achieves tenure by travelling this path it is quite likely that he or she will be inured with the idea of the importance of their niche, will be content to continue cautious and gradual work. The slow trudge to reach a point of security from which lofty goals can be pursued kills the drive and ethos to pursue those lofty goals and limits the bounds of what an academic can do. True, there are some wunderkind types who will slog through the process and go on to do great things, but the number is few. Many have their spirits crushed and many flee academia for greener pastures. As a result the university loses many of its greatest minds to alternative employment or soul-crushing despair.

Tenure also disincentives work. It’s much easier to coast upon one’s prior achievements and one can’t count on every professor to be a self-starter. Granting the infinite security of a professorship just encourages a degree of masked laze as opposed to a system that would enable and encourage large and innovative projects, but also use negative incentives like the threat of the revocation of title or money to spur action.

One can understand the program. You only want to spend the big bucks on people you’re sure will be an asset to your institution (thus putting them through the publish or perish wringer to prove they can produce content of value), and then you want to keep a truly good catch (with tenure). But the process has skewed the values we ought to judge hires by. The caution in allotting the money and titles has led to caution in the applicants and decreased the value and variety of the final products to the institution. It shuffles certain men and women off the coil, but keeps the boring, tweed crowd, save for one or two exceptions used to tout and reinforce the system as it stands, the meaningless success stories propping up the failing system.

Some of you know that I ask one big question over and over:

“Why is ‘liberal academia’ so conservative in terms of what it deems worth its time or viable as a project for intellectual scrutiny?”

You’ll have noticed above that I clearly have an answer. Voicing the question is mainly a cry of dissent and angst—I love the idea of teaching and of research and substantive academic work. I think it can be beneficial beyond the academic world, it can be accessible and profound and effective. But the culture academics operate in must be sensible and responsible, must be risk averse and gradual, and thus must be antithetical to the bulk of the greater minds of an age and the greater projects one could undertake. I’m no great mind, but (even though I understand its origins) I’d rather take one in the gut than throw myself under the barreling train wreck-to-be that is the modern model of academia.

If the above doesn’t seem depressing enough, let’s consider this as well:

It’s true that if you get a higher education degree you’re more likely to find gainful employment in the private sector. But it’s also true that many attempt to go on in higher education with the aim of being a professor or some such thing. With more and more people attaining degrees the pools of academic-track individuals has increased. This has increased the level of competition for tenured positions, augmenting the effects of publish or perish.

At the same time, the cloying willingness of these individuals to endure hell and a half to attain these positions has been recognized by universities. Universities expand, yes, but to do so with more and more professors is costly. It’s much more cost-effective to employ adjunct and junior professors and to get graduate students to teach a class. The more professors per unit of expansion, the less viable expansion is. The more lower-faculty per unit of expansion, the more cost-effective expansion is and the more profits the university (which does act like a corporation in many senses) can rake in. The clamoring of individuals seeking tenure amounts to a large and willing labor force with few rights that can be used and abused by the university, which can hire more instructors for expansion, but hold or decrease the level of tenure-track positions. This increases the ability of the university to churn out graduates, the same proportion of whom will probably seek a career in academia, but does not increase the ability of the university to sustain them in academic posts.

The result is an ever-expanding, self-sustaining system of university expansion and the use and abuse of dried husks of graduate students and university faculty, the sapping away of intellectual daring and the eventual weakening of universities in the long term (lower-level staff, as we have said, will be more cautious individuals and most likely busier, less passionate about education and research, eventually jaded and even negative influences on the next generation of thinkers, makers, and shakers).

Two words to summarize the trajectory of higher education in America and the future of innovation and intellectual power:

Train wreck.

Universities have an interest in the system, as I’ve just said. But there’s more sense in the long term and for the benefit of all in a series of alternative proposals for a university system that would decrease pressure on academics, limit undue growth, and incentivize thought and innovation. It’s really just a matter for the rest of us to figure out how to properly pressure the universities, hit them where they hurt, and force them to adopt the new system. Graduate student unions, American brain drain, and boycotts/protests are all viable options, but dangerous as well in their potential to starve the system to death before it can be reformed, etc.

So if the university is such a challenged system to produce innovation and thought, where do people with big ideas turn?

Most institutes are like the universities, as the article shows. They’re cautious, risk-averse creatures dealing with other people’s money and needing to show numerous, not helpful or interesting, results. The impetus is to fudge the magnitude of findings and discourage strong thought and risky projects vital to advancement of any field.

The alternate strategy is the genius grant, a system, which picks brilliant individuals and gives them a massive gob of cash to pursue whatever projects they dream up. The article here does a good job of picking apart the two models and says that genius grants are the best at producing innovation—they create the most-cited studies. Even if they do produce many duds as well, the values of the successes are such as to make the risky investments in geniuses worth the bother. That success should be a signal to all of us and to universities especially. The only caveats to the system are the need to define brilliance and to design systems that limit the dole of money so that it is conditioned upon and increased only with some signs of progress towards undefined goals.

Note that this little investigation doesn’t cover free market solutions, which do tend to be a little more accepting of risk. Think of all the wonderful things the private sector has brought us. Still the need to reap money means that the free market (non-altruistic, that is) solutions will focus the direction of research and limit the fields/the purposes within those fields that can be explored and innovated. So let’s put free market solutions aside for a moment, accepting that the implicit goals of such projects limit their applicability and direction.

The question then is, how do we convince universities and institutes to take the risks necessary to produce the highest and most applicable/appreciable intellectual yields? One has to downplay the losses and up-play the gains of risky systems like genius grants, showing that the high investment on uncertain goods can yield commensurate or exceeding gains on a regular basis that seems more frequent than it is. Creating that perception of high gains frequently and low losses rarely in a system that is inherently risky, well, it will over time change norms towards an acceptance of such programs and risks. But to reach a change in norms and propagate that perception of risk, intellectual drive, and so on, one must depend on a level of opacity and misdirection, of silver tonguing and propagandistic fanfare. That would feel a little unethical … leading to the age-old question: in order to do the things that seem the most beneficial and promising for the population as a whole, are we willing to do things which seem unethical? Even if towards ethical ends, is the unethical action justified? In the case of reforming intellectual environments, especially universities, how dirty must and should we play? And how long do we have to make up our minds?

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