three easy and low cost ways to improve academia

When people talk reform, they often talk about really big changes. Here, I’ll offer three simple policies that are low cost and easy to implement and would make academic life way, way easier:

  1. Do not require letters of recommendation for job applicants unless they are a finalist. Reason? First, as I noted before, research shows that letters do not predict future performance. They have low value, so ditch ’em. If you must use them, then only for people who have made the cut. Second, letters are not crucial for most applicants. Most of the action comes from PhD program prestige, publications/working papers, teaching portfolio, and awards. Third, lots of faculty fail to write them anyway. Fourth, letters encourage us to look at your friends, not your work.
  2. Limit the number of articles in your tenure or promotion file to five articles or one book plus three. Reason? Most tenure cases revolve around your best work, not your 12th best work. Also, if one really believes that academic CV’s are bloated, then this is a simple way to reduce the incentive for over production. Finally, it provides a relief for tenure committee members. A committee can genuinely read all five papers, but if you have 20 articles, it can be hard. Why five? Most people only have a few ideas to begin with. It is also enough space for a few big hits or a series of articles that lead to a big point.
  3. Multiple submission for articles. I have made this argument in the past many times. Books can be submitted to multiple presses, which usually prevents “hostage taking” that you find in journals, where an editor can hold a paper for years. It’s low cost in that it involves no new technology. If you are worried about reviewers doing too much work (e.g., reviewing a paper for journal A and B), the solution is easy – editors should just read papers, decide which ones should be “sped up” and let papers with slower reviews go to other journals. Thus, an editor can tell a reviewer “don’t bother writing the review, the paper went to another journal.”

Do you have a low cost and easy academic reform? Use the comments!


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Written by fabiorojas

May 10, 2019 at 12:31 am

Posted in uncategorized

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  1. #4 Applicants are required to lodge a single introductory letter and perhaps their CV with the ASA each year. Whenever they apply for a position, they submit this same standard letter. This would save applicants the work of writing dozens of letters in the bid to present themselves as a “good fit”. It would also provide hiring departments with a transparent and reliable account of the applicants. If the applicant is good and the fit roughly right, they could be invited to respond to a structured set of questions. Applicants could be given the option of updating their letter and CV twice during the year to reflect new publications/experience etc.



    May 10, 2019 at 1:01 am

  2. Even better. Applicants would upload them to a dossier service like interfolio and just hit send. I like your idea!



    May 10, 2019 at 2:25 am

  3. As appealing as that idea is, it would force applicants to choose which sector of the job market they are aiming for and prevent them from competing outside that market. Given the current prestige hierarchies, grad students would be coached to choose the R1 job market. Given the lack of R1 jobs, even more grad students would fail to find any employment. Our jobs are not interchangeable. If you think people can apply without customization, apply with CV only, no letter at all. But even then, many of us use different CVs for different jobs–one which emphasizes teaching experiences, one which emphasizes pubs, one which is designed for non-academic jobs, etc.



    May 10, 2019 at 4:20 am

  4. FWIW math & economics both have centralized “do it once” application systems; their cultures don’t involve cover letters beyond “here is my c.v.”

    Re reference letters, they can be useful for candidates who have not published. I think making them optional might be a good thing; if you have a track record, you shouldn’t need letters.

    What galls me is the requirement to get letters for senior hires. where the person’s publication record either stands or falls on its own and people have had a chance to get known by others in the discipline.

    I’m a fan of being able to scan the full corpus of a person’s work, although of course you cannot read everything carefully, but I like to get a sense of their intellect. This is especially important when the bulk of the work is collaborative.



    May 10, 2019 at 10:57 pm

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