Is Academia Getting In the Way of Today’s Geniuses?

BY Christian Sager / POSTED December 20, 2013
Hammerbrook - City can this really be true?
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higgs_feature_600x350 If Einstein were alive today, would he succeed in academia? Would Peter Higgs?

Stuff of Genius has already covered how homogenous the winners of the 2013 Nobel Prize are. Now two of this year’s laureates have stepped forward, alleging that the academic publishing and promotion system is inherently flawed. Whatever your career, everyone wants to advance further and see financial rewards for their hard work. But according to Peter Higgs and Randy Shekman, the academic game isn’t as much about merit as it is about quotas. If their argument is valid, it implies career-changing consequences for the scholars of today.

Peter Higgs was already famous before winning his Nobel, as one of the researchers who discovered the origin of mass. In an interview with “The Guardian,” Higgs says he wouldn’t even be employable at a university today because he’s not considered productive enough for the system. In fact, he thinks that his first Nobel nomination in 1980 is what saved his career, because the inevitable pressure to publish wouldn’t have allowed him the necessary time to make his groundbreaking discovery.

While Higgs may come off as a bit of a curmudgeon with his complaints about everything from knighthood to “The Big Bang Theory,” he’s joined in his denouncement of academic publishing by fellow Nobel laureate Randy Shekman. In a recent piece, also for “The Guardian,” Shekman says that the biggest academic rewards unfortunately often go to flashier work appearing in what he calls “luxury journals.”  He argues that if the scholarly community isn’t going to acknowledge the best work out there, it’s not serving the best interests of society or humanity.

Shekman continues pointing out the elephant in the room by identifying “Nature,” “Science,” and “Cell” as journals researchers are particularly rewarded for publishing in, even if those publications don’t have an exclusive on “outstanding” research. In fact, he accuses these three of being even more mercenary in their practices, by purposefully restricting how much they publish to create an artificial scarcity of genius.

How often your articles are cited is referred to as “impact factor” when a scholar’s peers review their curriculum vitae for promotion. The three journals Shekman calls out are more likely to be cited than others, so his colleagues are in constant competition to publish in them. But is citation really a factor that indicates quality? I cite articles in all our Stuff of Genius posts, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the articles I list are the best ones on a topic. What citations should do is provide external evidence for your arguments and contentions, while providing others with the credit they’re due for original ideas. But as Shekman points out:

A paper can become highly cited because it is good science – or because it is eye-catching, provocative or wrong. Luxury-journal editors know this, so they accept papers that will make waves because they explore sexy subjects or make challenging claims.

Since academics are being compensated for where they publish, rather than the quality of their research, Shekman advocates for born digital, open access publishing as a way to level the playing field. Universities and organizations that fund new research should judge research on its individual merits, not simply on where it’s published. The problem with the later is that while articles may be cited for their quality, other factors influence authors, including political positioning, attempts to influence editorial decisions, and cronyism to benefit one’s friends or colleagues.

Given the incentives involved, should citations alone be used to judge scholarly performance? Or should merit include a qualitative review of a scholar’s work by their peers?

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