Friday, August 24, 2012

Cracks in the Ivory Tower: Is Academia’s Culture Sustainable?

Hamburger University
Hamburger University (Photo credit: altopower)
by Dr Euan Ritchie, Lecturer in Ecology at Deakin University and Professor Joern Fischer, Professor at Leuphana University, The Conversation:

The pressure is on. More and more universities and academics are working in a culture that is untenable and cracks in the ivory tower have already begun to appear.

The work environment is now characterised by excessive hours, unrealistic benchmarks, high levels of competitiveness and inflexible (family unfriendly) work arrangements. No wonder many students are opting out of pursuing research careers, and alarmingly, women in particular are leaving the profession.

Most university employees would argue that their workplace has shifted its focus from education outcomes to one increasingly driven by economics (after all, the tertiary sector is now a multi-billion dollar industry).

Like Oliver Twist, this shift has seen an ever increasing focus on “more” - more students, more papers, and more grant income. But this narrow focus cannot be sustained.

Tertiary rat race

A good example of this trend is in publication rates. With the ease of online publishing and an ever expanding list of journals in our fields of expertise (ecology and conservation), and countless others no doubt, we’re publishing ever more articles on ever more platforms.

Perhaps ironically, it is well known in ecology that populations which grow at such rates inevitably crash, sometimes with disastrous effects. We only need to look at current financial markets to see the consequences of the continued pursuit of growth.

Compounding this problem is that we now live in an era of rankings. Universities are ranked, journals are ranked, and even individual researchers are ranked. The “value” of universities and their employees is now measured by the number of papers and citations and the volume of grant income earned. In short: more is always better.

To be clear, we are not for a second suggesting that we shouldn’t be rewarding our most productive, but the idea has become an ideology.

Measuring up

In the past, metrics of quantity allowed us to assess the performance of researchers, but now they have become an end in their own right. Ironically, once people deliberately pursue key indicators of performance, these indicators become less useful as independent yardsticks of what they were originally designed to measure.

Only a few years ago, researchers who published ten papers a year were regarded as highly productive. Now, leading researchers in our field publish 20, 30, or in extreme cases, over 40 papers a year, and this is a growing trend.

To feed such a volume of papers necessitates large and very well-funded research groups or consortia. So, since grant income is itself a key performance indicator in its own right, funding goes to the biggest groups, keeping them big or growing them even further.

On face value this may seem okay too; however, a bigger group of researchers does not necessarily produce “better” science, just more of it. The outcome of this is that many research themes of solid (but not necessarily exceptional) quality are beginning to dominate the literature through sheer numbers of papers.

Any narrowing in our knowledge base casts serious doubt on our future ability to respond to novel challenges. We acknowledge the picture we paint is incomplete, with exceptions among the most productive academics, the largest research groups, and the highest impact journals.

But we stand firm in our belief, and that of many others, that we are witnessing an overall trend that is deeply concerning.

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