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Too much academic research is being published

4 Oct 2018 - 07:15

There is a crisis in academic publishing – too much pressure on top journals, too many books of marginal quality, the rise of predatory journals and publishers that publish low or marginal quality research and tremendous pressure on academics worldwide to publish. 

The decision by The Review of Higher Education, a highly respected academic journal, to temporarily suspend submissions due to a backlog of more than two years’ worth of articles awaiting reviews or publication set off a twitter storm and much debate in the corridors of academia about the future of academic publishing, and in particular its very foundation, blind peer review. 

These fundamental problems are artefacts of several developments in global higher education in the past half-century – especially massification and the rise of global and national rankings of universities. 

Related is the sociological idea of isomorphism – that most academic institutions want to resemble the universities at the top of the academic pecking order – and thus seek to become research-intensive. The 19th century German Humboldtian ideal of the university argued that universities have a research role. 

And finally, a growing trend in doctoral education is to dispense with the traditional PhD dissertation and replace it with the requirement for doctoral students to publish several articles based on their research in academic journals, in effect moving responsibility for evaluating doctoral research from university committees to journal editors and reviewers.

All of this has led to an explosion of scientific publications that has overwhelmed the publication system and has made it impossible either for the traditional, and generally effective, peer review system to work or for the scientific community to evaluate a lot of scientific research.

No one knows how many scientific journals there are, but several estimates point to around 30,000, with close to two million articles published each year.

A dysfunctional and unnecessary system

Our argument is a simple one. There is too much being published because the academic system encourages unnecessary publication – and drastic cutbacks are needed. 

Reducing the number of academic articles and books would permit the peer review system to function more effectively, would reduce or eliminate the predatory journals and publishers that have emerged recently, and would, perhaps most importantly, remove massive stress from academics who worry about publication rather than teaching and service.

In mass higher education systems, only a small number of universities will be research-intensive institutions. In the United States, for example, perhaps 200 out of more than 3,000 post-secondary institutions are serious research universities. The Russell Group of research-intensive universities in the United Kingdom has 24 members out of a total of some 140 total universities. And in Australia, the Group of Eight is only a small proportion of the higher education sector. 

Most universities that are not research-intensive should, and largely do, focus on teaching. Faculty members should be rewarded for good teaching and for service to society and industry and not for research.

The Humboldtian German model, where all of the universities have a research mission, is wasteful and unnecessary to maintain quality. The growing numbers of universities of applied sciences in Europe and elsewhere should not have a research function but should stick to their name and focus on teaching supported by applied research. 

Doctorate granting should be limited to research universities and, in many countries, the number of doctoral students should be reduced as well. Professional doctorates can become an alternative path to research-based PhDs for people not aiming for a research-focused career.

Academic systems, with differentiated missions for post-secondary institutions, should ensure that research and publication is encouraged only at universities designated as research-intensive – and research funding provided almost exclusively to those institutions. 

The demand by universities of applied sciences and other non-research universities to be given research funding and PhDs – and the inclination of politicians to support these – goes against that trend. 

If a careful differentiation is made and research publication is required only in the research universities, our guess is that the quality of research and development will increase and more than half of current so-called research articles could be eliminated. 

This discussion relates mainly to public state-funded post-secondary institutions. Few countries have research-intensive private universities. Private universities have the freedom to define and implement their own missions so long as they do not use public funds other than competitive research grants.

Academic excellence does not require publication

Ernest L Boyer argued in his 1990 book, Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities for the professoriate, that the evaluation of academic work should include all aspects of the responsibilities of the academic profession, and that the large majority of professors who are not employed in research-intensive universities should be evaluated for their teaching and service, and not for research. 

He argued that most academics need to keep abreast of research trends and current thinking in their fields but do not need to produce new knowledge. Those few academics at non-research universities wanting to do research and publish should, of course, be permitted to do so.

At the same time that research is de-emphasised for most academics, the recognition and respect given to teaching must be enhanced. Both institutional and individual isomorphism must be eliminated – not an easy task but by no means impossible through a combination of carrots and sticks.

Possible reforms

The first steps, of course, are to define the differentiated academic missions of academic systems and to place academic institutions in appropriate categories – and link financial allocations to missions. This is not an easy task, of course, and can only be accomplished by government agencies or approved bodies, preferably with the participation of the academic community. Without question, this process will be both difficult and controversial.

The knowledge distribution system needs major change. The research-intensive universities and appropriate professional societies and government funding and other agencies need to take much more responsibility – and control – over a system that has become overly commercialised and in part corrupted. 

Predatory journals and publishers need to be weeded out. The extortionate prices charged by many of the monopolistic private-sector publishers, such as Elsevier and Springer, need to be reduced. The peer review system, which is at the heart of the maintenance of quality of scientific research and publication, needs to be strengthened. A significant reduction in the output of articles will make these reforms much easier.

Philip G Altbach is research professor and founding director and Hans de Wit is director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College, United States.