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Martin Paul Eve

Professor of Literature, Technology and Publishing at Birkbeck, University of London

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If you think carefully about research publication and its economics, a strange (but also obvious) point becomes clear. In university ecosystems where we have tuition fees (and probably in those without) we determine how much material can be published through the frame of reference of teaching.

This can be seen if you accept that research in the academy serves the dual function of dissemination and assessment. In this mode, researchers (myself included) attempt to claim a pure function to research; we write to be read, we write to spread our work, we write and publish for the good of humanity. At the same time, there is a clear personal benefit to publication. We publish because it is a professional demand, required by funders and necessary for appointment or promotion. This forms a symbolic economy that maps onto different material economies for different parties. Furthermore, regardless of what funders say and regardless of DORA and its signatories, researchers want a shorthand for quality because they do not have enough labour time to read everything. This results in the publisher brand or journal name frequently standing in as an incorrect, but used, proxy for quality.

The symbolic economy of research

In all university posts involving teaching in the UK and in other countries with tuition fees, there is a paradoxical relationship between the criteria on which we hire and the actual, on-the-ground aspects of the job (and its economics). On the one hand, in such a setup, universities gain their primary revenue streams from teaching (tuition fees). Indeed, research grants, while prestigious, are often not hugely profitable – particularly if they do not cover full economic cost (FEC). On the other hand, these same institutions nonetheless hire on research distinction. A strange situation (and perhaps just a matter of historical lag) that the contemporary university hires on brilliance of research but thrives economically on brilliance of teaching. It should hardly go without saying that the criteria to demonstrate that one is a good researcher – years alone in a library or years working in a laboratory – have little overlap with the criteria to show that one is a good teacher.

In this curious overlap lies the rub. If we want a system for hiring and promotion that relies on reputation in research, then the research environment must reflect the economic/job-market environment of the space for which it serves as an evaluative proxy. In other words, it must be comparatively hard to get a research publication into a top venue as it is to get an academic job. For instance, my current estimates for the discipline of English Literature in the UK are approximately 200 Ph.D. accredited applicants to every post. Applicants who wish to succeed at this process should have a range of publications across “top” journals in their field. Roughly speaking, then (and it’s only ever rough), it should only be 200:1 people (with Ph.D.s) who can get their articles and books published in a sufficient quantity of these claimed “top” venues. (As a side note: I don’t believe that there is such a thing as a “top” venue. I think each contribution should be weighed on its own merit and attempts to formalize this are problematic and economically damaging for scholarly communications.)

Of course, this proxy is not the be-all and end-all and the mathematical calculation is not precise. This is why we have shortlisting and interview processes. But the proxy measure is frequently used to whittle down the longlist. But, for this proxy to be effective, it is not mirroring an environment where the number of jobs is determined by research excellence, but by how many students one can recruit. A department can’t operate, in a tuition-fees environment, without having students to contribute to its finances (sadly – what a tragic line to be able to write).

And so, when I hear calls for us to “publish less”, I think: yes, that’s all very well, but how are we to exclude work? Many many people think that the quality controls should be tighter and that less should be published (I speak from a humanities perspective here and throughout). They do not usually think it is their work that will be unpublished, though! I also wonder whether such calls are coming primarily because the contraction in the academic job market – which is, remember conditioned by tuition fees – is simply making the proxy less effective. In this latter instance, if true, we are seeing calls to restrict the volume of research material (and its corresponding economic field) on the basis of a job-market structured around student recruitment. It’s a far cry from the noble goals of research dissemination and it’s why I continue to think the dual function of research as dissemination and assessment is intensely problematic.