Selective Mutism: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Impact Factor

There is an unwritten rule in academia that good research, however you may define it, is less important than published research.  This does not preclude good research being the backbone of the academic world, but rather suggests the priorities of science, as a paradigm, have shifted.  Specifically, to the rule of publishing as much as you can (Elizabeth & Grant, 2013).   This trend has roots both in the audit culture and modern political structure, particularly in Canada.

An increasing focus on ‘numbers’ outside of the academic world has bled in to the most hallowed halls of higher thinking.  A major component of evaluating researcher’s quality is quantity of publications, the dreaded impact factor (Burrows, 2012).  The more you publish, the better your evaluation.  This audit culture forces researchers to, as Burrows (2012) says, either “’play’ or ‘be played’” (p. 369).  The implication is an increasing number of academics publishing to add a line on their CV, rather than to solve or study some novel question (“The cost of salami slicing”, 2005).  Either you keep publishing or you drop out of the race.

This is arguably an even bigger concern for new researchers, who have the added challenges of navigating both an unknown world and limited resources.  The poor student cliché exists for a reason.  Articles describing quick tips on how to boost your resume in graduate school and the need for social income services  after graduating, demonstrate the necessity of playing by the rules to increase your chances of paying rent (Keslky, 2012; Patton, 2012; Utell, 2011).  Publish as much as you can, as early as you can. Science for the sake of science seems to be an antiquated concept.  As Scott (2007) states, in his article on peer review processes, being published relies heavily on having conclusive results and complex problems rarely have conclusive answers.  Supervisors may need to push students to research simpler concepts, those that minimize political, temporal and financial burdens, in order to publish.

A key phrase in that last sentence, political burdens, is a concern for both new and experienced academics.  Being funded, and therefore producing any form of publications, relies increasingly on government approval, especially for those researchers working in the public sector.  The recent documentary on the Canadian government’s disregard for academia, “The Silence of the Labs”, demonstrates the danger of this influence (Rumak, 2014).  Not just in social arenas like public health, but archaeological and environmental fields. If research even slightly contradicts the message the Harper government wants to put forward, large-scale cuts and eventual job loss may result (Rumak, 2014).  The mantra should be ‘get published not political’.  Researchers have to operate under some assumption of topical, selective mutism.

The question comes down to this, at a personal level, is ‘doing’ science our job?  Are we just working at our chosen employment or are we attempting to understand and help the world?  If the former, the pressure to publish is still a personal challenge but not a systemic problem.  If the latter, there is a much greater barrier.  Your core ideals about what you think you are doing  do not match up with the day-to-day realities of your work.  Even a blending of both views of science can lead one to disenchantment (Elizabeth & Grant, 2013).

In conclusion, I do not want to suggest that academia is in a constant state of dredging up simple and repetitive research, but that as we allow the influence of audit culture and political preferences to seep in to the academic world, we lose what makes us important.  That is our ability to objectively examine and answer questions about the world around us.  It may be naïve to suggest that science should help people or the world, but I hope at the very least we do not end up ignoring what needs to be researched in favour of what is easy to research and ultimately publish.

 

References

Burrows, R. (2012). Living  with the h-index? Metric assemblages in the contemporary academy. The Sociological Review, 60(2), 355-372.

Elizabeth, V. & Grant, B.M.(2013). ‘The spirit of research has changed’: reverberations from researcher identities in managerial times. Higher Education Research & Development, 32( 1), 122–135.

Kelsky, K. (2012, March 27). Graduate school is a means to a job – manage your career. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from http://chronicle.com/article/Graduate-School-Is-a-Means-to/131316

Patton, S. (2012, May 6). The PhD now comes with food stamps. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from http://chronicle.com/article/From-Graduate-School-to/131795

Rumak, O.J. (Producer & Director). (2014, January 10). Silence of the Labs [Motion picture]. Canada: Canadian Broadcasting Company.

Scott, A. (2007). Peer Review and the Relevance of Science. Futures, 39(7), 827–845.

“The cost of salami slicing.” Editorial. (2005). Nature materials, 4(1), 1.

Utell, J. (2011, February 25). Practical wisdom and professional life. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from http://chronicle.com/blogs/profhacker/practical-wisdom-and-professional-life/31442

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