Thursday, 28 March 2013


Does academic research benefit the broader population, or is it designed to cater to specific and narrow interests in the private sector or a government agency? Has academic research ever focused on the catering to the interests of the general population, or was it always interested in serving a specific institution or business? If we trace the role of the intellectual to the 18th century, we can see that thinkers of the Enlightenment era believed that service to improving humanity and contributing toward the progress of society must be the goal of intellectuals. Moreover, the intellectual of that era had the ideals of the Renaissance intellectual who believed a truly educated person was one not just narrowly trained in a specific field, but also generally educated about everything from music to technology, from art to theology. But even if this not sufficient, for the intellectual must also be a thinking person rooted in values that contribute to the edification of humanity, at the very least to one's fellow-human beings with which one interacts in life.

In order to survive in modern society with institutions demanding tailor-made employees that will conform to the culture of the corporation or public institution, universities produce robotic-students who are taught by robotic professors and a system tailored to the measurements of the business model. In short, the ideals of the Enlightenment about the role of the intellectual in society is very difficult to find in higher education that has been reduced to a business venture trying to secure funding. To secure such funding, the institution must conform to the business model, which means that the faculty must adhere to guidelines for tenure and promotion, as well as pay raises geared toward a business model academic productivity.

On 2 March 2013, The Telegraph published an article entitled:  "Academics accused of undermining studies by racing to publish their works as popular histories" 

Oxford historian Keith Thomas is apparently concerned that young academics are rushing to publish their works as watered-down popular histories, compromising their quality. An entire industry has emerged around this issue of converting academic work into popular literature for the sake of making money and securing a bit of fame. Are the motion picture, fiction and popular literature industries are influencing young academics in this cash-and-fame direction, or is the pressure coming from the web-based technology, and from college administrations that are cash-oriented themselves and place commercial value of research above any intellectual merit, creativity and serving the general public instead of a corporate or government agency sponsor.

Academic's for hire are no different than mercenary soldiers, or corporate salespeople sent out to secure greater market share. There is the question of legitimacy of academic work, but beyond that issue is intense race to blur the line between academic work and popular literature that finds a wide audience. Popularity means greater prospect for equating the work with commercial success, as though the work of the intellectual is based on a model for advertising products for mass sales.Should there be a difference between the model used by an advertising agency and that used by universities, or are they in the same business and the only thing that matters is for the university and its faculty to secure funding? Without funding the university cannot function, therefore the university administration has fully embraced the business model, it is made up of business-oriented individuals and in turn, the university tries to produc commercially viable faculty.

But what is the faculty to do when it only wants to have the greatest impact and that means commercializing the product produced, whether that is literature or anything else?  For practical purposes, those seeking promotion and salary increases linked to publications, they ought to publish and seek to do so in the best recognized journals. As far as impact factor goes, the answer depends on the researcher's field, because there is a vast difference between humanities, social sciences, and 'hard sciences'. It may be the case that an article in chemistry has several hundred citations, while an article on John Milton has two or three. Does this mean that the article on Milton is of inferior quality, even if compared with another on Dante that has a dozen citations?

It is true that there is a link between "public access journals" and greatest impact factor that most equate with commercial success. However, here is a caveat on that issue. In academia, at least from my 27-years of experience, peer viewed journals is what counts when one tries to a) secure a tenure-track position; b) secure a promotion; c) secure a better job at another university; d) secure merit-based salary raises.
Now if one wants to have the widest impact possible, then one thing to do is take a segment of the published article in a peer-reviewed journal, and distribute it electronically via blogs, etc. - this assumed securing the permission of the journal editor before doing anything, of course.

In 2013, academia is indeed at its highest point ever (there is a vast surplus of people with terminal degrees) and that accounts for immense competition. However, the surplus of academics also presents challenges calling out for reform an otherwise archaic system that existed when I was a graduate student in the 1970s. Unfortunately, the direction of the academic is headed toward even greater commercialization and greater dependence on 'cash-value' value system in academia.

Anachronistic journals in some fields is indeed another problem with academia. The people that I know in the field of journal publishing tell me that they know e-publishing is the future, and that means new methods for wider public access, but with the caveat that somehow they must make money to stay in business. OK, you have an article that has 5000 clicks on some site, while a printed journal article went into 100 libraries collecting dust and into the hands of another 350 subscribers. If I am a researcher whose work is read by 5000 people, I feel great that I have an impact. However, does this necessarily translate into quality and does it mean that the article in the printed journal is of inferior quality? I would argue that the highest quality academic works are still in printed journals, although that is changing very fast and it will be a thing of the past in a decade or so. This does not mean that there are not good works online, but the traditional academic and the university as an institution continues to remain traditional for now, even while transitioning.

Academics are not popular romance novelists trying to reach the masses. Let us not forget the targeted audiences of academia. Academics are not working for advertising firms trying to sell dish washing soap, nor are they salespeople at a mall trying to sell shoes. The academic, however, feels like he must place saleability above all else; the academic is pressured to produce work that is somehow marketable like video games; the academic is not an independent contractor for government agency or business. If the academic is any of these, and must be so to become 'successful', then the academic is doing a disservice to her/his own craft by not focusing on creativity with the intent of serving humanity and its needs; focusing instead on commercial viability of her/his work.
It is indeed very difficult to advice a young Ph.D. student to embrace the ideals of the Enlightenment and to turn her/his back on early 21st century commercially-oriented research. It is difficult because people above all else want to survive and beyond that they want to be popular and successful even if that means sacrificing creativity geared toward serving humanity instead of the narrow interests of a corporation, defense ministry, etc.

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