Research priorities: towards a culture of ideas

imagesLast week, I looked at the new Coalition government’s intention to circumscribe the range of acceptable topics for Australian Research Council grants.

I think – aside from the obvious ‘condemn’ – that might also provide a useful starting point for a broader discussion on how we formulate research priorities and research policies. (I don’t think our conversations around LNP initiatives should be a binary one of reflex opposition – radical change also opens up space for felicitous rethinking and activism in civil society).

At, Brayden King links to a farewell essay from David Courpasson, departing editor of the European journal Organization Studies.

King remarks:

The essay is provocative and a bit pessimistic, although not unfairly so.  One of the major problems plaguing our field, Courpasson believes, is the development of a culture of productivity in social science, which seems to have most severely infected organizational and management research. In this culture of productivity, scholarship is not evaluated based on relevance or the quality of ideas but rather on the sheer volume of research that a scholar can produce. Professors are compelled to write lots of journal articles, and they push them out quickly in order to boost the length, but not necessarily the quality, of their CVs.  Although he doesn’t mention it, this culture of productivity seems to have numerous institutional sources, including the practice of many departments that determine merit raises and tenure cases by “number counting” (i.e., deciding that someone deserves tenure based on the number of “A journal publications” the person has produced).

The consequences of this culture of productivity is to increase the sheer volume of publications but at the sacrifice of social relevance.  The culture also has negative effects on the review and editing processes. Reviewers are worn out, editors are overwhelmed with new submissions, and there are simply too many journal articles to read and process.

In Australia, it seems to me, most university research and the publication process is designed not to produce scholarly knowledge or social or policy impact (except as incidental by-products), but to produce commodities as quickly as possible which are the raw inputs to metrics and rankings and therefore “reputation” and dollars.

We could probably do with a go slow.

We could also probably do with a conversation about how socially relevant and scholarly rigorous research could be facilitated outside the Taylorised production lines of the neo-liberal academy.

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20 responses to “Research priorities: towards a culture of ideas”

  1. mindy

    So are you saying that we need to move past ‘publish or perish’? If so then yes I agree.

  2. Mark Bahnisch

    Oh yes!

  3. Helen

    Here’s a link to an open letter from the Australasian Association of Philosophy to Pyne and Briggs. The words “pearls” and “swine” do come to mind, though.

  4. faustusnotes

    How else can you judge quality from an institutional perspective, though? My dept uses total impact factor, and we try to avoid low impact journals, but we also aim for quantity within that metric, and to timeliness. What else can we do? And how else should our institution assess our work?

  5. desipis

    What else can we do? And how else should our institution assess our work?

    Perhaps we could just appoint people we trust and who have the knowledge to a position to make the calls and trust their discretion?

  6. Katz

    In the 1960s, many products advertised their endorsements by “university research”.

    Not so much any more. Is this a signifier?

  7. faustusnotes

    What do you propose as an alternative though?

    I suspect the coalition won’t care about impact so long as the title confirms their biases.

  8. Roger Jones

    Sad to say, but the measurement fallacy is alive and well in benchmarking academia.

    I like the idea of the google scholar/scopus ratio. A high ratio means that your work is breaking out of peer reviewed journals into the real world.

  9. Katz


    Ain’t that the gloomy truth?

    @9 I was gesturing toward a popular culture of respect or even deference toward academe.

    Given that in Australia universities are publicly funded, this disconnected between universities and taxpayers can be dangerous.

    There are votes in Briggs and Pyne bragging about pissing in professors’ pinots.

  10. conrad

    “In Australia, it seems to me, most university research and the publication process is designed not to produce scholarly knowledge or social or policy impact (except as incidental by-products), but to produce commodities as quickly as possible which are the raw inputs to metrics and rankings and therefore “reputation” and dollars.”

    I think you’ll find that this actually changing in recent years, where we have moved from DEST points (produce as much crap as possible) to a system where “poor” articles were given negative scores.

    A lot of people have complained about this, but there are good things about it, not least of which it means that people who do smaller amounts of good things arn’t penalized for it anymore compared to those rolling out the junk (many people use this strategy unfortunately, and denying this is denying reality — it’s common for people to have huge exploitative labs with many PhD students, but they do nothing really inspiring at all). The other thing you want to consider is that some of these indicators arn’t bad. If you get a paper cited 100 times in a few years, for example, it’s generally going to be pretty good.

    I think most of the disputes have come at the other end, where people are doing work that isn’t well cited but still think it is good work. There is some truth in this (and some egos also), and at least in things like the ERA and university bureaucracies, you will be punished for it. Alternatively, with things like the ARC Discovery grants, you get reviewed by people who probably have quite a good chance of telling good from bad even if it is poorly cited. In this case, if you are producing low impact junk, you will get caught by people that do know (unlike administrators), and if you are producing low impact gems, then you will be rewarded for it too.

    At least to me, the solution to this is just to get rid of all for worthless league rankings done by the government and just conglomerate everything into the ARC and NH&MRC schemes (mainly Discovery Grants). This way you can get around most of these problems, and you also help individual researchers and not the morons in management above them. You save money too, which could be better used on grant funding than worthless government statistics. The problem now though is that many Canberra administrators have a vested interest in keeping these things going as their jobs depend on it, as do many individuals in universities. Things like the ERA, for example, costs tens of millions to run, yet the results almost entirely duplicate the grants to individuals, except it’s worse because the money goes to the university and not the individuals who actually did the good work, and hence the redistribution of funds is vastly more susceptible to university corruption and nepotism.

  11. Tyro Rex

    “Either it would never be done, or it would be 200 mini-articles like “Caligula’s Horse: Paradigms and Posterities” (Journal of Obscure Classicism Research).”

    There are hardly any obscure journals of Classical Research! All are well known to Classicists.

    Oh and it probably wouldn’t be Classics journal (read: philology) like Classical Quarterly, Classical Journal, Transactions of the American Philological Association, American J. of Philology, Rheinisches Museum fur Philologie, Mnemosyne, and so on, but more likely one of the historical journals like J. of Roman Studies, J. of Late Antiquity, Greece & Rome, Klio, Historia: Zeitschrift fur Alte Geschicte, etc. The obscurer journals tend to be the ones published by the national associations of smaller countries, like Antichthon (which is still an ‘A’ journal).

    Just to be pedantic for a minute.

  12. Tyro Rex

    “common for people to have huge exploitative labs with many PhD students,”

    Ha! Not in the Humanities. Everyone still sinks or swims by single-author monographs, whatever the constant push by University administrations to “collaborative models”.

  13. Jewell

    There are some valid criticisms and discussions coming up here about the actual quality of academic work.

    But I would just like to go on a different tangent for a minute and point out that universities are now major employers. Supervising and managing post-graduate researchers is a sizeable chunk of what they do. Reducing the overall quantity of research means reducing the numbers of people doing research. Ultimately, taking money out of the university system means reducing employment.

    This may be justifiable. But – particularly for Victoria – the growth of the tertiary education sector has been an important economic change, and it is now a big industry. It gets a lot of government funding, but it also brings money in.

    So the questions that arise for me in all this slash and burn are:

    Do the LNP appear to have a vision about how Australia and Australians can find work in a global economy?

    How intentional are the attacks on the educated workforce? A very bleak winter is coming to people in my social class. Are we being actively targeted? Or is it instinctive?

  14. conrad

    “Ultimately, taking money out of the university system means reducing employment.”

    I think it’s usually more about cutting corners (if it’s possible to do from a circle). The main people that should be complaining about this are young Australians, since they are trained so poorly now that most new full-time jobs now go to immigrants (e.g., here), although presumably life is so easy for most of them now they don’t even care.