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CAUT Bulletin Archives

March 2009

Productivity in the Vale of Peers

By Ronald Glasberg
Few tenets of academic life are as sa­crosanct as the principle of produc­tivity as monitored by those masters of quality control, the jury of one’s peers. Yet, few principles can be as corrupting of what should lie at the heart of the academic enterprise — namely, the search for truth. By search for truth I mean the challenging of prevailing assumptions — something hindered by what I would call the “productivity-peer” system.

Productivity is the measure of academic worth in terms of numbers of articles and monographs produced. Given the capitalist ethic of Western Civilization and its emphasis on productivity, it is no surprise that most universities are caught up in this outlook and seek to direct re­search and judge faculties by their ability to generate large quantities of published work. But instead of market forces deciding what counts as having value, the peers play the role of gatekeepers to the para­­dise of publication acceptance.

But what is a peer? Common sense would suggest peers are those who have achieved distinction in their fields by publishing a considerable amount, and it would be unusual for such individuals to accept as publishable those works that differed from their own in terms of basic principles. In other words, the peer system may engender a dangerous circularity or intellectual narrowness. Who watches the watchmen? Who guards the guardians?

More serious is the problem of “peer­­lessness” at the frontiers of knowledge. If the search for truth involves going boldly where no one has gone before, how can one expect a body of peers to exist at a place of radical innovation, a place where researchers are pioneering new approaches to a subject? It is not hard to see how the peer system can discourage this type of scholarship.

Moreover, just as it would be wrong to restrict those who do solid work in well-established areas — areas carefully protected by competent and honorable peers — it is equally wrong to restrict those whose work is directed to areas where a body of peers has not had the time to come into existence.

Another unstated presumption of the productivity-peer system is what might be termed the “equality of output expectation” with respect to productivity in the humanities and the sciences. While it would seem a principle of basic fairness that the quantity of humanities publications be comparable to that of the sciences, this ignores at least one fundamental difference in the way know­ledge is structured within each of these spheres of knowledge.

To put it simply, when a set of dis­ciplines is hierarchically structured, a piece of scholarship in one area has more of a possibility of af­fecting other areas than is the case when a set of disciplines has only loose connections with each other. Hence, productivity is more to be prized in the former than in the lat­ter context of scholarly work.

Within the sciences a hierarchy of disciplines has long been in evidence. For example, new developments in mathematics may have a bearing on physics while those in physics may shed light on problems in chemistry. What might seem like the smallest discovery in the field of chemistry might have revolutionary implications for some biologist or even oncologist. Can one honestly say such strongly integrative relation­ships hold between studies such as philosophy, history and literature?

Of course, connections may and often do exist between scholarly output in the humanities fields, but without the structure that characterizes the sciences many of these links are harder to discern and, for their refinement, probably require a great investment in time. Given the imperatives of productivity, which emphasize quantitative output over qualitative insight, humanities scholarship may inexorably be driven to the creation of excessively narrow works of questionable significance — this because a level of productivity, which makes some sense in the sciences, is uncritically adopted by those who oversee the labor of humanities scholars.

I cannot help but wonder how many of my humanities colleagues are stymied in their attempts to create a work based on years of re­search and thought, a work that may make a true difference to more than just a few experts, a work of a lifetime. What stymies them? The artificial time constraints imposed on them by the productivity-peer system, which demands output in a timely manner.

Unless one plays the game of conference attendance, maximizing publication possibilities, and, of course, lucrative grant garnering, one’s time is not being well spent. It is as if the productivity-peer system does not recognize the possibility that some scholars require years in a kind of retreat from the foregoing activities in order to produce the world-changing work. I am not dismissing those who can produce according to the rules of the current game. I am only advocating a greater measure of tolerance for those marching to the beat of a different drum.

So what is to be done? I suggest it is important to begin a university-faculty-department dialogue on the impact of the productivity-peer sys­tem on scholarship and scholars rather than let these issues fester in silence.

Second, for those who are moving in what I call a “peerless” direction, provision should be made to find alternative means of assessment. This might involve assessment committees taking the time to read works in progress and deciding on their merit apart from peer-mediated publication, which may lie in the future.

Third, administrators and scholars alike should overcome their fear of an encroaching forest of deadwood. The fear is based on the pre­sumption that opening the doors of academia to forms of scholarship outside of the productivity-peer system would lead to a host of self-indulgent dilettantes taking advantage of the system and producing nothing of value.

Not only is such a view based on an unspoken contempt for those who have committed their lives to the search for truth, it also assumes that “deadwood” is a quality only attributable to scholars who have produced very little. It may also be attributable to those who have produced quite a lot.

Ronald Glasberg is a professor of communication and culture at the University of Calgary.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily CAUT.

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