The Normalization of Science

The work of an academic today is disproportionately defined by the imperative to publish. This is true to the point of platitude, and there is no shortage of good writing examining this condition of the academic as publication enterprise. For better or worse, the experience of publishing one’s work allows for a pretty close view of the backstage of science, or of that backstage that decides what gets to see the light of day and what stays in a drawer. Today I want to reflect on what I see in the publication backstage, something that I think of as the normalization of science.

I am active as an academic in the social sciences. My own work draws on philosophy, human geography, political science, anthropology, and human ecology, so I think I have a pretty good overview of the effects of publication incentives in the human and social sciences. I make no claim about the natural sciences, as I am not familiar with their workings.

For academics reading this, there is no need for an introduction to what publishing means in academic work today. For everyone else, a few words on the things you need to know. Academia by and large is no longer dominated by teaching, but by research. What counts as research is measured in output, or how many publications a researcher is able to get through the publication process. Not all outputs are judged equally: the highest ranked ones (so the ones that count most for a career) are usually articles in specialized journals (undergoing peer-review, that is, binding feedback from peers), followed by books and book chapters, with some variation across disciplines. This is a very rough sketch, but for those not in academic employment it should be enough to understand the main outlines of an academic career today. It boils down to this: publish as much as possible, as often as possible, and mostly articles.

As the university has increasingly been modelled on a productive business, academics have been encouraged to build their own brands. We are all entrepreneurs now, the most valued human figure today, and we are supposed to communicate our unique work to large audiences (this blog is part of my own branding effort). Increasingly, academics need to make their work pay, which means that we are required to apply for grants to fund our research projects (“attracting funds” is also part of career evaluations). Each grant application, about which I have also written here, is an exercise in narcissism. I am required to show my excellence and uniqueness, cycling through an array of keywords and catchphrases that everyone must use. The obvious paradox here is that the uniqueness of individual’s brands can only be expressed in very confined ways. Just like the consumer freedom to buy whichever clothes actually ends up dressing everyone the same way, so the academic freedom of being a unique brand ends up creating legions of very similar output machines.

The obsession with publication elicits a similar paradox. The publication industry is extremely biased towards ‘original’ work, so the basic function of scientific replication is itself imperilled. But besides this worrying aspect, the originality of each article or book is supposed to follow a very strict format. An article that, for example, does not respect the logic of introduction – methods – discussion – conclusion (with variations depending on discipline) has a very low chance of ever being published. Similarly, articles that do not exhaustively refer to the same body of literature everyone else is referring to in any particular discipline will be forced, by the peer-review process, to correct their ways and mention the same people (sometimes editors or peer-reviewers themselves) ad nauseam. Risk-taking in terms of content or format almost never pays off. Submitting a paper that is actually original is almost guaranteed to increase the publication time considerably (career suicide today), and the article that will eventually be published will likely have been normalized by the editorial and peer-review process.

A good, conscientious academic wanting to build a career will therefore quickly learn the format of the discipline in which she is working and master the tautological language of grant applications. In order to get papers published as quickly as possible, long and complex arguments will be cut in parts, to be published separately. A ‘theoretical framework’ will always be ready to hand for plugging into the various publications; as long as it mentions the right people and is therefore established, it is safe from challenge. In fact, it will be unorthodox frameworks that will be challenged and ‘corrected’. Data itself will be gathered in order to publish, and not necessarily in order to best understand a phenomenon in the world. Ten-point scales will abound, and thick description will become a rarity. In any case, nobody has time to check another researcher’s data, so if it looks ok, it’s ok.

All in all, the environment of obsessive output generation disincentivizes risk taking on the part of academics. If you look through most journals in the social and human sciences, papers seem to be written by the same collective, impersonal mind. To do anything else is career idiocy, because it will take longer to publish, because data gathering itself will take longer, or because you have to rewrite the same paper five times until it has been hammered into conventional shape. This has the effect of leaving risky but potentially groundbreaking work to PhD students or, more likely and more often, to the increasingly few people in privileged and secure academic positions. For academics in insecure positions – that is, for the vast majority of academics today – conformism is career savvy. For the overall health of the human and social sciences, this is disastrous.

In my own work I often turn to books or articles written in truly unique styles, with undeniably bold ideas. Those are the ones that inspire and allow for unexpected connections; they are the ones that got me into this to begin with, luring me with the promise of an intellectual life. Now I often find myself thinking that many of these works, by the likes of Bruno Latour or Cora Diamond or Konrad Lorenz, would never pass peer-review today, certainly not in the form in which I am reading them. The only reason why I can read this work at all is either because it was published a long time ago, or because its author is by now famous enough to be able to escape the constraints of the publication mill. I, and many others in my position, would love the luxury of spending time writing our best work. But we know that this would probably be done at our peril.

Young academics need to pay their dues to the profession, I am not arguing otherwise. Getting a PhD is part of that process, and one’s first publications are as well. But increasingly the paying of dues is endless, and in order to build a secure academic career in a time of insecurity you need to amputate the part of your thinking that is yours and become a simulacrum, a scholar-brand relentlessly pursuing output. It stands to reason that not everyone that would have the opportunity to spend time writing their best work would also produce memorable, or important, work. But the current state of affairs all but guarantees a steady stream of mediocrity.

From where I am standing, the latest changes in the academic environment will only increase the pressure to publish, and diminish the quality and true originality of work. I am thinking about the coming open science framework which, at least in Europe, will make all data and publications open to access. This is on the one hand great, because it is finally dismantling the scandalous paywall system. But what it will also do is increase the pressure to publish, and increase the homogenization of data such that it can be easily (and quickly) accessed and converted into all-important outputs. In the coming era of open science, academic performance will probably be judged even more stringently on output performance (more on this in a future post).

Why does this all matter? For academics at the individual level, it is a matter of workplace quality. Burn-out and general ill health is bound to increase under these conditions, and this is worrisome enough. For the human and social sciences in general, that is to say, for how we understand ourselves as a species in the world, these trends are particularly dangerous. We live in an era of normalized science, where what counts as insight is predetermined by the formatting rules of both content and style and by the requirements of branding. Immense amounts of talent are being wasted on writing meaningless papers and grant applications. The pressure to publish leaves little time for reading and thinking, two activities without which the quality of work surely suffers. Under these conditions, even if someone manages to take the time it takes to write an original piece of work, it is likely that most of her peers will not have the time to properly engage with it, especially if it’s a book. As a system for scientific knowledge, this is silly at best.

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