The Publication Culture

April 2006

University culture is, for most faculty members, formed primarily by the pressure to publish. It is a publication culture. Although lip service is paid to "good teaching", what is measured as good teaching is faculty members' popularity with their students and then we pretend it is the same thing. Good teaching is one way to be popular with students, but there are other easier ways, and it would require a saint to take no advantage of those easier ways in order to influence the survey results. Faculty members have many good qualities but saintliness is not one of them. The result is that our measures of good teaching fail to discriminate properly. This is generally understood (if not admitted) so that "good teaching" ratings have very little bearing on most of the deliberations of most promotion and tenure committees. What is all-important in most of those deliberations is the publication record of the faculty member.

The emphasis on publication has the good effect of stimulating research output by university faculty which is a very important benefit for the university and for the sponsoring society. However, there are some costs implicit in this publication culture, as it now exists.

One of those costs is that faculty members become reluctant (and sometimes adamantly refuse) to take on important committee assignments. Not only is the time spent (sometimes very substantial time spent) on those committee assignments not rewarded in tenure, promotion and salary decisions, but it actually results in a penalty to the faculty member because of the fewer resulting publications. Faculty members who pay this price once, quickly learn that if you wish to promote your own career, then you refuse all time-consuming committee assignments and spend all of your time on academic publications.

This disincentive to take on important committee assignments is a cost of our publication culture, as it presently exists, and is detrimental to the best interests of the university and of the sponsoring society.

Another cost of our publication culture, as it presently exists, is that many faculty members are encouraged to become very narrow in their focus. The best way for many faculty members to gain a strong publication record is to focus exclusively on a very narrow range of their discipline and to work at the forefront of that narrow range. This results in learning a great deal about a very small part of their discipline and almost nothing (beyond what was learned in graduate school) about the much larger part of their discipline. This would not be a problem if the limitations of this narrow focus were generally understood, but often they are not. A faculty member who establishes a strong publication record and a national or international reputation as an authority in one narrow area of a discipline is often considered (particularly by people outside the discipline) to be an authority in all areas of the discipline, when, in fact, that person may know very little about these other areas beyond what was learned in graduate school many years ago. This failure to recognize the limitations of narrowly accomplished faculty members' abilities, enables them to do damage sometimes by sneering at general (rather than publication-oriented ) discussion of important social issues outside their area of expertise, by lending credence to ideas which are many years out of date, or by failing to understand the importance of, or even opposing, recent developments in these other areas of their discipline. Narcissism (the academic's occupational disease) often prevents a hugely but narrowly accomplished faculty member from recognizing his or her limitations, which is likely to ensure that the potential damage from their narrow focus is realized.

This is another cost of our publication culture, as it presently exists. One of the consequences of the very narrow focus of many faculty members, and of the narcissism which seems to be promoted by our occupation, is that communication is impaired. The narrowness of the focus limits the ability, and sometimes the interest, in discussion of important social issues outside the narrow area of specialization. Narcissism creates conversation which is more likely to be about ones own importance rather than about how ones own work bears on important social problems. Narcissism also involves a craving for approval which impairs the expression of opinion lest offense be given, and to taking criticism of ones ideas (however wrong) as a personal affront. Instead of meeting a challenge to ideas with better ideas, or alternatively, learning from others' ideas, the more likely response to criticism is, in the publication culture, as it presently exists, to clam up, shunning or demonizing the critic and shutting down the conversation. Political correctness prevails in discussions of broader issues. This should not be. The university should be a marketplace for ideas, not only within narrow focus groups, but also among disciplines.

It should not be, as it is now, a place for a multitude of narrow focus groups and a parade of egos.

Changes are needed. I know I do not have a solution, but there is one thing which could obviously be done to make our publication culture less of a navel-gazing rat race designed by and for narcissistic workaholics.

Greater attention should be made to make available to all faculty members, non-technical descriptions of the social implications of the research results and methodology of our outstanding researchers at SFU. Not enough is generally known, for example, about the important research on pine beetle control by John Borden, about the important work by Parzi Copes on the East Coast fisheries, about the important work by Herb Grubel on unemployment insurance or about the important work by Don Devoretz on immigration. We should take much greater pains to disseminate detailed non-technical descriptions not only of the results but also of the methodology employed in all of this important research. I am sure that there is much more important research that has been conducted at the university that I, and many others, know nothing about. This illustrates the problem. As a community of scholars we should take much greater care to achieve non-technical communication with others in the university community but outside our field of specialization. As it presently exists, too much of the conversation in our publication culture is between specialists, much too little between different fields. Too much of the conversation is about one’s own importance rather than the importance of one’s work. Part of the problem, as I see it, is that we are generally too little interested in the social implications of our work, too much interested in our own reputations, too much interested in blowing our own horns and too little interested in learning from our colleagues.

We are too contemptuous of others’ ignorance of our specialized knowledge. We are too full of ourselves. We need to learn that there are more important things than stablishing our own reputation. The university is too much a multitude of independent focus groups and a parade of egos. The parade should be much more of ideas and much less of egos and there should be much more interaction among the focus groups than there is at present.