In this post, meant to be the first of a series, I want to start collecting opinions and ideas about the transformations that modern academia is undergoing, and little by little to give shape and structure to some of my own thoughts. I do have a thesis (a very critical one) and a guiding inspiration for structuring my analysis (I will talk about this at some point), but I’m in no hurry and first I’ll just write sparse notes on whatever comes around.
Carlton M. Caves, High-impact-factor Syndrome, APS News.
Caves proposes an analysis of one of several indicators of the Thing (from here on, the Thing is whatever is happening to Academia), namely the compulsive drive to publish in high-impact factor journals like Science and Nature (something that was nearly unimaginable to physicists of just one generation ago). His analysis is light and serious at the same time; it focuses on physics, an area of science where things are still human.
Before plunging into the political side of the story, just a little diversion. Caves writes that
“As physicists, we should know better. We know data must be treated with respect and not be pushed to disclose information it doesn’t have, and we know that just because a number is objective doesn’t mean it is meaningful or informative.”
It is interesting to see this clash between the “objectivity” of a number, meant as a static object on page, and the “subjectivity” of its interpretation, which I greatly appreciate, given that most often I have the impression that people just take numbers as truths (as if truth existed at all…). However, most often the analysis of the subjectivity of claims is conducted a posteriori: “huh, that number doesn’t really catch that phenomenon, how can we make it better?”. Not enough analysis is on the processes that led to that number a priori; that is, in science it is not just about how well questions are answered, but more often about how questions are asked: “Why did we calculate that number?”. And it is precisely there where all of the dust is thrown…
In general, the obsession with quantification of “output” is a major “hallmark” (to use a wording so dear to our academic bureaucrats*) of any system affected by the Thing, be it science, economics (the GIP), health (life expectancy), schooling etc. Caves suggests to think of this obsession as a sort of syndrome on its own (the HIFS, High-Impact Factor Syndrome). Funnily enough, in this way he parallels the general tendency of more corrupt areas of science of defining ad-hoc syndromes for any manifestation of social disorder. I rather think that HIFS is a symptom of something more complicated, any action against HIFS, when advanced by the very same institutions that produce it, will result in an even more dreaded mutation of HIFS. In a way, I think the organism itself could in principle do better against HIFS on its own: At the time being, nearly every senior scientist I talk to has an awful opinion of most papers published in Science and Nature, and of certain communities that took the regular habit of publishing there with regularity. Sooner or later this will come out in some form or another.
Caves’s proposed action is not system-size but, rather, personal. That is, he prescribes a sort of list of commandments for an appropriate “moral” behaviour. All very agreeable indeed (“Though shalt be effective in communication”, “Commit to technically informed reports”, etc.). And I also like this initiative as well:
By the way, I also endorse this boycott of Elsevier
(though I must say that it’s relatively easy for a physicist to boycott Elsevier, wouldn’t know how I would behave if I was in medicine).
However, personal morality is weaved together with the complex cobweb of relationships that tie the individual to the community; at the moment the community is put under enormous strains as an external force (the carrier of the Thing) is trying take hold of its control, to use it for purposes that are not those that the community decided for itself**. Then, I see all these little actions not much as effective per se, but rather as preludes that should build up a symphony of awareness, until some dramatic action will be engaged, something that will require a clash against power.
* The analysis of the jargon the administration employs, and tries to impose on us, also plays a role in my ideal analysis: human resources, assets, milestones, corporate identity…
** Here I have a very nice parallel with the birth of slavery…