Academic Freedom Now: A response to Timming

In his recent article, Prof. Timming argued that there are two types of academics when it comes to publication practices: the realists and the idealists. He rightfully admitted where he stands in this debate (spoiler: he is a realist) and provided valid justifications about why he believes that publication feels like a game. He picked a very provocative title that claims, “Everyone Plays the Academic Publishing Game, Even Those Who Claim They Don’t.” In response to his piece, I will try to explain why this is indeed true, but also provide some alternative, idealist perspectives (even though I also admit that I am a converted realist, while still believing that things could be significantly better than they are now).

Prof. Timming indicates that there is, indeed, a problem when it comes to measuring the quality of research, especially inasmuch as such a thing cannot ever be truly measured. While rankings, ratings, and other mechanisms can help solve the problem, they may also add fuel to the fire. According to Goodhart’s law, when a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.

One of the main reasons why everyone plays the academic publishing game, even those who claim they don’t, is that we are a by-product of the current system. Needless to say, publications, especially in high-impact journals, are the most significant determinant of finding an academic job. It is not uncommon to read CVs from recent PhD graduates with dozens of top journal publications. Early career researchers are not only expected to be productive, but also globally competitive before their careers start. This creates a significant problem that growing publication expectations lead to barriers and discrimination against researchers who could blossom at later stages at their careers. If university administrators have it their way, we will keep writing studies “that are technically and econometrically very impressive, but add almost no new value to what we already know,” as Prof. Timming complained. Unfortunately, publishing has become a game with its learned rules and practices, leaving little room for creativity and literary aesthetics. Its sole purpose is no longer simply to communicate research findings.

“One of the main reasons why everyone plays the academic publishing game, even those who claim they don’t, is that we are a by-product of the current system. Needless to say, publications, especially in high-impact journals, are the most significant determinant of finding an academic job.”

As Prof. Timming also suggested, rankings, ratings, and other metrics have absolute flaws. This is undeniable. However, we should not forget the influence of the commercialization of higher education. This is one of the major factors as to why there is a need for rank-orderable systems, as they powerfully shape student choices. Because the funding of universities largely depends on tuition fees, it is hard for universities to extricate themselves from the broken publication game, as more publication means more funding, whereas more “bad” research has no direct financial benefit.

Researchers at universities, especially at competitive ones, are also required (sometimes imposed) to publish their research in a limited set of journals, and more often than not, their careers depend on it. This pressure endangers academic freedom. As a result, top journal publications become the key performance indicators for almost everyone in academia. Other academic activities such as teaching, publications in languages other than English, disseminating knowledge, impact, and many others which were traditionally taken as signs of intellectual contribution, are considered as inferior and become a burden for researchers.

As a researcher, I also feel a responsibility to speak up about some of the dangers of journal rankings. The real problem we have is more linked to the erosion of academic freedoms, so we constantly need debates in alternative platforms from a critical lens, which go beyond research. And probably, although he admits that he used to be an idealist some years ago, I still believe that Prof. Timming still is an idealist at heart, as running an unusual platform like Dire Ed demonstrates that he has much more to offer than communicating in echo chambers of researchers.

Mehmet A. ORHAN, PhD
Associate Professor, Paris School of Business
Twitter: @orhanma

This article is published under a Creative Commons 4.0 License.

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