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Researcher as victim. Researcher as predator.

7 September 2015 7 Comments
English: Illustration of a leopard and cheetah

English: Illustration of a leopard and cheetah (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Researchers for the most part are pretty smart people. At the very least they’ve managed to play the games required of undergraduate and post graduate students, and out-competed a substantial proportion of other vying for the same places. Senior academics have survived running the gauntlet of getting published, and getting funded, at least enough to stay in the race.

It has been observed that when smart people do dumb things it is worth looking closer. The dumb thing is usually being done for a smart reason. Indeed we might go one step further and suggest that where a system is populated largely by smart people the proportion of dumb things they are doing could be a good diagnostic of how good the system is at doing what it is meant to do, as opposed to what it is measured to do. On this basis we might wonder about the health of many universities.

We also know there are a few issues with our systems of scholarly communications. And some of these involve unscrupulous and deceitful players out to reap a commercial gain. The story of so called “predatory” journals is a familiar one, which usually focusses on “publishers” claiming to offer open access services, but more recently an article in the Guardian took a similar stance on traditional academic monograph publishers.

In both cases the researcher is presented as a hapless victim, “hoodwinked” as the headline states into parting with money (either directly in the form of APCs or indirectly through their libraries). But really? I’ve no intent to excuse the behaviour of these publishers, but they are simply serving a demand. A demand created by researchers under immense pressure to demonstrate their productivity. Researchers who know how to play the game.

What is a line on a CV worth? Does it make that grant a little more likely? Does it get you past the magic threshold to get on the applicant short list? Is there a shortcut? Researchers are experts at behaviour optimisation and seeing how systems work. I simply don’t buy the “hapless victim” stance and a lot of the hand wringing is disingenuous at best. On a harsh economic analysis this is perfectly rational behaviour. Smart people doing dumb things for smart reasons.

The expansion of journal lists, the increasing costs to libraries, and the ever expanding list of journals that would take just about anything were never perceived as a problem by researchers when they didn’t see the bills. Suddenly as the business model shifts and the researcher sees the costs the arms are going up. The ever dropping circulation (and ever rising prices) of monographs was never really seen as a problem until the library budgets for monographs started to disappear as the serials crisis started to bight.

The symptoms aren’t restricted to dodgy publishing practices of course. Peer review cartels and fake reviewers result from the same impulse, the need to get more stuff published. Paper mills, fake journals, secondary imprints that will take any book proposal, predatory OA and bottom feeding subscription journals are all expressions of the same set of problems. And the terrifying thing is that responsible publishers are doing a pretty good job of catching a lot of it. The scale of the problem is much, much greater than is obvious from the handful of scandals and a few tens of retractions.

At times it is tempting to suggest that it is not publishers that are predatory, but researchers. But of course the truth is that we are all complicit, from publishers and authors producing content that no-one reads, through to administrators counting things that they know don’t matter, and funders and governments pointing to productivity, not to mention secondary publishers increasing the scope of they indices knowing that this leads to ever increasing inflation of the metrics that makes the whole system go round.

We are all complicit. Everyone is playing the game, but that doesn’t mean that all the players have the same freedom to change it. Commercial suppliers are only responding to demand. Governments and funders can only respond to the quality assessments of the research community. It is only the research community itself that can change the rules. And only a subset of that.

Emerging researchers don’t have the power to buck the system. It is senior researchers, and in particular those who mediate the interface between the sources of funding and the community, the institutional leaders, Vice-Chancellors, Presidents, Deans and Heads of Department. If institutional leaders chose to change the game, the world would shift tomorrow.

Scott Edmunds perhaps summed it up best at the FORCE2015 meeting in Oxford:

It is no longer the case that people are gaming the system, the system has become a game. It’s time to say Game Over.

If we cast ourselves as mere victims we’ll never change the rules. The whole narrative is an excuse for doing nothing.

This post was prompted in large part by tweets from Martin Coward and Nancy Sims


  • Charlie Rapple

    Great post, Cameron – it expresses (much more articulately) my initial reaction to the launch of the RPR Coalition (rprcoalition.org) at ISMTE. That is an exciting initiative in the sense of progressing beyond the much discussion of some of these issues, to uniting a range of people in taking some action on those issues. But I agree that unless we change this overall system – change the game – initiatives such as RPR will only be gopher-bashing. Yes, it’s important to bash those gophers in the short term. But we also need to get some institutional change in the long term. FORCE 11 is one group that seems well positioned to drive this change.

  • Hi Charlie

    I have to admit to having other issues with RPR but that has to do with other narratives…

    Ultimately we need cultural change, and that happens in smaller steps, not all of them willing but increasing the stories I hear about what people are told they have to do involve abrogation of responsibility and we’ve got to take responsibility before change can happen. And of course we have to acknowledge that different people in the system have different abilities to act as well.

    I agree FORCE11 should be a good place to get people together to realise that if they act together (and @srp made a good point on this on twitter) that we can change things. But it does take courage and the willingness to take some risks as well.

  • band

    The last sentences are the call to action needed. And as tricky as this sounds, those of us who are established need to clear the way for the next generations to construct a better system for themselves.

    One critique: the terms “smart” and “dumb” are not very descriptive. Describing behaviors as “adaptive” or “maladaptive” in the context of established and changing publication, altmetrics, and education systems and objectives might make the discussion less emotional. Maybe.

  • Mike Taylor

    “But of course the truth is that we are all complicit, from publishers and authors producing content that no-one reads, through to administrators counting things that they know don’t matter, and funders and governments pointing to productivity, not to mention secondary publishers increasing the scope of they indices knowing that this leads to ever increasing inflation of the metrics that makes the whole system go round.”

    As I always like to say when discussing scholarly publishing: there is plenty of blame to go around. No-one needs to feel left out.

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  • You’re dead on, Cameron and more people need to keep repeating it for change to happen. Since about 2009, I have it in many of my talks, see slides 13-16 here:

    http://www.slideshare.net/brembs/whats-wrong-with-scholarly-publishing-today-ii

    We control everything. We don’t need to ask funders. We don’t need to ask politicians, we don’t need to hope someone else will clean up the mess that we produced for ourselves in the first place.

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