the culture of productivity vs. a culture of ideas
David Courpasson is finishing his term as the editor of Organization Studies, the official publication of the European Group for Organizational Studies (EGOS). As a parting gift, he wrote an essay about what he feels is right and wrong (okay, mostly wrong) about the current state of organizational scholarship. 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. Here is an excerpt from Courpasson’s article:
[O]ur current system of scientific manufacturing creates more papers to review, with less committed and less timely reviewers, with a lower density of challenging ideas, as well as of ideas that are less significant for ‘the world’; in other words, for other worlds than the closest colleagues and networks. The culture of ideas is therefore vanishing: due to publishing pressures, people feel more and more pushed to submit any paper because rejection is not necessarily harmful: a new dynamic is created where work is routinely submitted anyway, sometimes in a real hurry (that is to say, even when clearly unfinished, including incomplete lists of references or variety of colours in the text), overburdening journals and editors. Here individual arbitrations surely play a role: authors’ visibility can indeed be maximized by small improvements enabled by journals’ insightful reviews; at the same time, thanks to this principle of productivity, potential papers to submit by a single author are multiplied, often in a logic of replication and repetition that also leads to ‘deviant’ behaviours such as self-plagiarism. But that adds some items in a resume and that is important because items are counted. Again, this is a counterproductive game: because volume does not always match quality and innovation, editors are more and more inclined to focus on flaws to purposively (although not willingly) narrow down the number of papers under review and obviously, in this ‘negativist’ cycle, innovative papers can be sacrificed by the necessity of correlating the ‘quality’ of a journal and a high (desk) rejection rate.
This process of deterioration in the quality and increase in the magnitude of production also tends to ‘weaken’ the core supervision of editors who rely more and more on the supposedly increasing professionalism and willingness to serve of growing pools of reviewers. Here it is not only the loss of an ‘idea-based’ culture that I am lamenting, but the prevalence of a culture of individualistic achievements which is strengthened by absence of true fellowship and solidarity ties between scholars, less and less animated by the project of building a serious collective knowledge.
There are a lot of things going on here. I certainly agree with Courpasson that the massive flow of sloppy journal articles through the publication process is a problem. How we evaluate them is also problematic. Too often, we assess papers based on this little thing we call “theoretical contribution”, without considering how interesting an idea might be outside of a very narrow subfield. Sometimes really silly ideas get pushed as theoretical breakthroughs. More generally, Courpasson’s point seems to be that we’re too concerned, as a field, about measuring quality through productivity and volume and that this concern has led us astray from really debating ideas and focusing on ideas that influence the everyday lives of the subjects we study. He compares the work of people like Gouldner to what we do today. Gouldner had a fundamental interest in explaining how organizations shaped people’s existence and his work was motivated by figuring out how to make their lives better. Similarly, Selznick believed that organizational analysis ought to be examine how organizations helped solve (or prevented the resolution) of societal problems. Much organizational scholarship today, by comparison, is fairly disconnected from those practical considerations. He thinks, and perhaps others would disagree with him on this point, that the shift in emphasis results from the culture of productivity changing our motivations as scholars. Being an academic is no longer a calling but rather a vocation.