on inequality and academic publishing (and how google scholar is like the sat)

How does our publishing define us?  And why is publishing the way professors are defined?  Chad Wellmon* and Andrew Piper have a really interesting paper that combines historical work on the changing definition of a professor alongside some nice quantitative work on who winds up publishing where:

 In the case of contemporary university assessment, the relative value and authority of individual scholars and institutions are directly linked to “research outputs.” Publications are discrete objects that can be counted and compared. They have become the academy’s ultimate markers of value, especially in the humanities and humanistic social sciences where other markers of quantifiable value such as grants and private funding are less prominent.

Wellmon’s a professor of German and has written a book about the invention of the modern university, so it’s no surprise the article takes a deep dive into the German roots of what we modern academics do. Then we get to the article’s quantitative second half, which comes out of Andrew Piper’s really interesting work on the digital humanities (like text mining the novel!)

So what do they find?  It turns out where you work matters for where you get published, but even more important is where you went to school. My one criticism of this finding would be that humanities professors at non-elite schools just don’t need articles for tenure or status: the humanities they’re looking at are still mostly monograph games. My hunch is you’d find a bit more parity if you looked at monographs, especially as correlated with where people work (though where they went to school might look about the same as Wellmon and Piper find in reference to articles).

Yet the irony of a focus on publications is that it was supposed to make things more equal! As Wellmon and Piper tell the tale, to be a professor in days gone by was to depend on patronage networks and relatively arbitrary methods of evaluation. So then we say, wait, okay, we’ll look at publishing.  That will even things out!  Yet it turns out the rich still just get richer, and we haven’t replaced patronage networks so much as changed the patronage sources and forms.  It’s a weirdly similar story to the SAT, which was intended to make a smart kid from a public school in Kansas commensurable with a prep school kid from Rye, New York.  Yet the SAT didn’t quite work like that, for reasons sociologists of education have been studying for some time.  And it turns out Google Scholar doesn’t work like that either.  Yet one of the biggest problems here is that both Google Scholar and the SAT seem to work.  After all, professors X and Y can both submit to the same journal with an equal shot, just like students X and Y can take the same SAT on the same day. And to go back to “incalculability” wouldn’t work either:

For many in the humanities, it is precisely the process of Weberian rationalization, embodied above all in counting mechanisms like the REF or Google Scholar, that have contributed to the ills of the current system. Only an emphasis on the “incalculable” or ineffable nature of humanistic practices and objects of study can preserve the health of intellectual inquiry into the future. And yet the history of scholarly publication that we have tried to outline here tells us a different story: the recourse to measurability in exercises like the REF is not something administratively new but part of a much longer attempt to undo ensconced systems of patronage and loosen forms of institutional favoritism and cultural capital. The recourse to accounting for publication was implemented in the spirit of transparency and intellectual openness. The urge among some humanists to resist this tradition absolutely and as a matter of principle would only retard attempts to redress longstanding patterns. The invocation of incalculability has to date served as a highly effective means of maintaining hierarchy and the concentration of power, prestige, and patronage––cultural capital of all sorts.

So what do we do? They’ve got a modest suggestion:

What we need in our view is not less quantification but more; not less mediation but mediation of a different kind. It is not enough to demand intellectual diversity and assume its benefits. We need new ways of measuring, nurturing, valuing, and, ultimately, conceiving of it. We need alternative systems of searching, discovering, and cultivating intellectual difference. We need platforms of dissemination that don’t simply replicate existing systems of concentration and patronage, just as we need new metrics of output and impact that rely less on centrality and quantity and more on content and difference.

Read the whole thing (it’s free for now).

*I looked at an early version of this paper for Chad (he’s a fellow at the IASC where I did a post-doc).


Written by jeffguhin

July 22, 2017 at 2:24 am

One Response

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  1. Jordan Brower and I took a deeper dive into some of the quantitative aspects of Wellmon and Piper’s paper. On the one hand, we think that the paper’s work in measuring stratification in the humanities is an important first step towards determining whether there is a problem – and, if so, what to do about it. On the other, we felt that there were troubling problems with both the data and quantitative methodology used to capture the extent of stratification in the field. Our “Critical Response” was posted on Critical Inquiry’s blog (“In the Moment”) this morning. The blog is linked here:

    Liked by 1 person

    Scott Ganz

    July 24, 2017 at 3:26 pm

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