It’s easy to blame administrators, but blame placed on one house often belongs to the whole village.
Many articles and books have been written about how universities have shifted to business models of operation, with associated moves toward privatization, and how that is detrimental to science. Of course, it’s easy to blame administrators for these shifts. It goes beyond that, however. Blame placed on one house often belongs to the whole village.
The business model, with its use of metrics to quantify productivity, has been quietly adopted by working scientists. Vitae from scientists spanning a range of academic ages now include publication metrics, the amount of money a scientist has generated, and media contact metrics to quantify the amount of attention a scientist has received. From where I sit, attention of that sort is a cash equivalent for universities.
No pushback on bean counting makes life easier for bean counters. Individual pushback occurs now and then but never gets far. Some of us, myself included, tell ourselves comforting stories that change will come as more scientists see the problems with turning science into an open market, competitive business. Once that group advances to positions of power, all will change.— ””
Regarding comforting stories, I can say from my experience that I have seen colleagues work themselves into higher levels and lobby for restraint against privatization and commercialization. Still, the efforts get reduced to a few voices screaming into a void. In bean counter terms, the numbers remain stacked. As far as I have seen, there has never been a concerted and unified pushback with the needed numbers (for the quants) or the needed conviction (for the quals) behind it. This has made it easy for critics to be dismissed as a handful of old cranks or junior scientists who couldn’t succeed.
This leads to a question: Why haven’t scholarly societies served as a point of community pushback? Why have they not fought for science as a public resource? Short answer: Many have moved toward business models and privatization themselves.
Academic societies list themselves as non-profits, but many societies profit significantly and align themselves with private publishing companies. Societies benefit from business models and performance metrics. They have added to the metrics by creating more awards for individuals. Their purpose is no longer as a collective voice for the communities that lead to their formation. They are businesses.— ””
So, what options remain? We can continue to complain – to rage against the mythical figure who keeps us down. We can continue to believe we are raging against bad actors who ruin it for us all (‘the others’) or against the system (‘don’t hate the player hate the game’). That may be cathartic, but the machine rolls on.
Alternatively, we can move toward the self-realization that we are the system. We are complicit. If we rage, we rage against ourselves, against our complicity. Speaking personally, that perspective on my rage makes it far less cathartic. If existing academic/scholarly societies no longer serve the community roles they once did, maybe we can stop being complicit and leave them to start new ones. It’s been done in the past. The first societies started with shared community concerns.
This leads to another question: What stops us? What stops us from leaving if we don’t like what our academic societies/unions have become? Do our careers depend on being dues-paying members of some society and attending their meetings?
–If we don’t like journals becoming for-profit businesses, what stops us from not sending our work to them? Why do we serve as authors and reviewers for journals that turn private profits? Do our careers depend on publishing in specific journals and serving as unpaid labor for them?
–If we don’t like universities hyping research in press releases for university exposure, what stops us from saying ‘No thanks’ when our public relations department comes knocking? Do our careers depend on media exposure?
–If we don’t like the proliferation of awards in science, what stops us from saying ‘No thank you’ to an award? When our department chair comes to us saying, ‘We want to nominate you for an award’ (because that is good for department exposure), what stops us from saying ‘No thanks’? Do our careers depend on awards?
–If we don’t like quantitative productivity metrics, what stops us from not relying on them? What stops us from not buying into the idea that productivity equals value? Do our careers depend on upping our productivity metrics?
–If we don’t like universities extracting ‘added value’ from staff by upping job expectations (e.g., more publications, more grants, more graduate students, more media exposure, more committee work), what stops us from taking action? Do our careers depend on accepting added duties imposed on us without negotiations and added compensation?
–If we don’t like neoliberal agendas and privatization taking over science and universities, what stops us from not playing along as active parts of the system? Do our careers depend on us playing along to the degree there is no choice and, therefore, no personal blame?
If your answer to the questions above is ‘Yes, my career depends on it’ and you are good with that, at peace with decisions that follow, then there is no need to read on. ‘Because I will lose my job’ is a valid answer to why one chooses not to do something. ‘Because my job depends on it’ is a valid answer to why one participates in something they are not fully comfortable with on an ethical, moral, theological, or philosophical level. Life is not ones and zeros. Compromises are made, and personal decisions need not be justified to others.
If you do read on, I will assume that even if you agree, wholly or partially, with ‘because my career depends on it,’ you are not at peace with the actions it leads to.
The business model of universities and science relies on pushing individual interests above community interests (an individual can be a university or a research group). It follows the idea that individual companies competing for market shares are the most productive way to move the economy forward. The great decider of value is the market.
Many academics and scientists think applying the idea above and its operational framework to science and education is a mistake. There are numerous articles and books on the subject, and I have enjoyed reading them.
It made me feel good to see others raging against the system, against the figure who manipulates us well-intentioned academics and scientists. Eventually, I grew suspicious. After asking myself, as honestly as I could, what stops me from pushing back and answering, ‘I like my job, and I want to advance my career,’ a realization hit me: I am the ideal neoliberal worker.— ””
When push came to shove, I bought into the business model that tells me to be concerned with myself. In the interest of self-interest, I participated in undermining science as a collective. In self-interest, I undermined the idea that education goes beyond job skills and market value for students. I am an academic who can write papers about problems and concerns for prestigious journals but cannot act when a threat is at the door. I am a Homo Economicus raging against science and universities becoming a collection of individuals driven by economic/career self-interests.
The hypocrisy was eye-opening.
Is this essay more hypocrisy? That’s not for me to decide. However, I can say that I started writing it to remind myself that self-introspection (which I count as an action) helped me wake up. It helped me see reality versus a conceptualization that made me feel better.
I kept writing based on speculation: An answer to ‘What stops us?’ is that maybe, like me, many have not opened their eyes to reality.
1) The reality that the problem is not some oppressor, not our colleagues who cut corners or are afraid to act (i.e., the other), but is ourselves; 2) The reality that when we blame the system, we forget, or do not accept, that we are the system. If that’s correct, then no volume of books and articles, and there are many, will have practical effects. Sympathetic readers may read and nod along but will not See (big S). They will see (small s) what they want to see, what lets them have a cathartic rage, and what makes them feel good or a little better, but they will not see reality.— ””
Reality is not here to make us feel better. On the other hand, humans are good at making themselves feel better about themselves. I realized how much of that I was doing. I was playing ethical/moral off-set games to justify certain actions. For example, I could tell myself my research has societal benefit to offset agreeing to press releases that turn research findings into overly-certain clickbait about the next breakthrough.
The ease with which I slipped into ‘my research has value’ versus ‘research into this topic by the community (many who disagree with me) has value’ was eye-opening. No oppressor manipulated that shift in my thinking. It’s a shift that feeds the business model. Why would a press release from one university talk about the work from other universities? Why would a scientist acknowledge competing hypotheses when discussing their breakthrough idea?
Either of those would be like one company promoting another company’s product. That’s career suicide in a competitive market. I saw the ethical issues and the hypocrisy but did not See it. So instead, I came up with schemes to justify ‘small transgressions.’
The idea of ‘small transgressions’ is, itself, hypocrisy. If you aren’t doing really bad things, then all is good (e.g., ‘as long as I am not plagiarizing, then I am an ethical scientist’). As a scientist who studies systems, that hypocrisy ran deep.
Systems can collapse due to accumulated small dings (a major shock is not required). I should have seen the fallacy of ‘Oh, it’s no big deal in the big scheme of things,’ but I did not – easier to make myself feel better. Some added examples: 1) My results are being made to sound more certain than they are, but they aren’t fabricated, and I’m solving important problems; 2) Being verbal in support of diversity offsets being complicit to science becoming a competitive business that homogenizes toward the highly competitive with backgrounds for market success; 3) Increased depression and imposter syndrome amongst post-docs can’t be blamed on hyper-competition and need for individual awards. I went through it and made it; 4) Yes, this journal is double dipping for profit, but publishing in it gets my work seen by more of my colleagues, and I am doing it for them.
I could give more examples of offset schemes to convince myself that, on balance, I was not doing harm, i.e., keeping the ethical/moral equivalent of my carbon footprint neutral. Given you’re still here, I’m hoping there’s no need. I’m hoping you are going through your introspection. If that leaves you reading on, I offer a thought for added action.
If small transgression can move a system from one form of behavior (education and science as public resources) toward another (privatization of both), then small rebellions can work in the opposite direction. Can we move from small transgressions to mini rebellions – acts of resistance to corporatization and commodification of science and higher education?— ””
When faced with a systemic problem, one wants to solve the whole shebang in one grand, sweeping gesture. Realizing one doesn’t have that ability can lead to resignation. As with offset schemes, that can make one feel better about oneself, ‘I can’t change it,’ while still raging against a system one is part of. I speak from experience.
If action was going to happen, I had to move away from the idea that I needed to produce some new and innovative solution leading to change. That mode of thinking fits a business model that thrives on everyone wanting to be an entrepreneur of the new and shiny. Maintaining something of community value without producing anything new flies in the face of marketization and privatization. It’s an old mode of thought that becomes rebellious in a new world. It doesn’t require new committees, proposals to fund investigations into your transformative ideas, or more papers arguing for reform. Instead, it requires acts of maintenance. Less of the grandiose academic setting out to solve societal problems and more of the humble plumber fixing a leak versus trying to convince you all the pipes in your house need replacement.
A few of my examples follow. They are not meant to be templates. They are offered as motivators for your actions that make sense to you. Meaningful action requires Seeing the reality of any particular situation. That needs to be a personal realization. Time must be dedicated to it. For acts of resistance or maintenance to have a chance, that time is as important as writing another paper, garnering another grant, or any of the other ‘that’s my job’ tasks that stop one from self-introspection.
Example 1: University Press Releases. Universities compete with each other. The competition involves promoting work connected to a university. Universities have paid writers who generate press releases heralding research from their professors. Journalists pick up the press releases, leading to a large attention footprint. Like many, I was told this would enhance public science knowledge. Sounds good, but it falls short of reality.
Read a university press release, then consider this: Is the goal to promote science or to promote the university? How often do you see the work of scientists not at, or connected to, the university acknowledged, much less discussed? How often do you see uncertainties acknowledged or competing hypotheses discussed? How often is it about the scientist(s) versus the science? Does it seem like every release from every university, with at least one a week from every university, plays up the importance of a result, the confidence that it is correct, that it will transform a field; are there really that many breakthroughs occurring every week? Have you seen a university press release reporting how a previously hyped result had to be withdrawn or was shown to be incorrect or inconclusive? Is any of the above a sign of the motivation to enhance public knowledge of science?
I asked myself the questions above when I started growing suspect. I asked why I had not asked them of myself when my public relations department had come to me in the past. Finally, I asked a question that put me face to face with my ego: ‘Is my motivation primarily to get results out to the public?’ I realized that feeling flattered to discuss my work, I allowed myself to throw collective values under the bus. In the interest of promoting my work and my university in its competition with other universities, I was harming science as a collective and the public appreciation of science.
It is a nostalgia trap to think that universities will back off on marketing, branding, and advertising under the umbrella of public relations. It can lead one (e.g., me) to mistake a symptom for a cause. When universities move to competitive market models of operations, advertising increases. Companies have been advertising since the ‘good olde days.’ The people hired to advertise are not the cause of increased advertising. Stated another way, raging against public relations departments is a mis-diagnosis. For myself, I realized it’s a mistake that could paralyze action. It’s worth adding that public relations staff are just doing their jobs – no fair blaming others to shirk personal responsibility.
The realization above showed me that raging about administrators was also a mis-diagnosis. Universities moving to business models and becoming knowledge corporations comes with increased mid-management.
Raging against the rise of mid-level administration while rolling over to the ethos of the business model (private interests first) is hypocrisy. I wouldn’t say I liked the symptoms, but I chose not to See the cause as it would expose my complicity – ruining the personal catharsis of raging against others.— ””
What could I do if I could no longer rage against my public relations department and ‘all those journalists who distort science’ (it’s not like we scientists could be part of the problem, is it?)? I could try talking to them. Not about my glorious research but about how press releases can damage science. I could enter into a dialogue.
I asked a writer in my public relations department if they had heard about the problem of hype in science, about increased retractions of published results, about growing concerns that many research results – proclaimed to be significant – could not be reproduced, validated, or verified. The answer was, ‘No, I wasn’t aware.’ Whose fault is that? Mine. I could have started that dialogue long ago when I did press releases that now make me cringe. Instead, I sent the writer a few articles that discussed the problems.
Dialogue is two-way; if I am willing to stand up for it, I can have control in press release discussions. That comes with responsibility. I decided I would work to keep the focus on the science more than on myself. I would discuss uncertainties and competing hypotheses. I would discuss what is not understood and what remains unknown. I would work to get the work of other scientists, who I have no direct affiliation with, discussed or, at the least, mentioned. I would not submit to the idea that scientific integrity issues might distract from a clean and catchy storyline.
Did the above work? I can’t say, as it’s early days (I may never be asked to do a press release again). That said, I did get an encouraging email from the writer I sent the articles and who I had done a press release with after I realized I was part of the problem. An excerpt: “… it was easy and fun to talk with you about your work but not as easy to write about it because of your strong desire to minimize the “me” (i.e., you) in whatever I wrote. It’s funny because I knew you weren’t doing that for “humble brag” reasons. And I also knew that you knew it sometimes made it harder for me to tell the story. And even though you regretted that it made things a bit harder for me, you nonetheless stuck to your guns when I’d push back. So I now have a much clearer idea of where that was coming from. Which is cool.”
Dialogue is cool, but rage is easier. The ease of raging against the other – those writers distorting science to advertising the university – provided a feel-good drug that, for a long time, made me not feel bad that I wasn’t willing to do the less easy thing and confront the issue. Advertising is not the problem. The problem is bad advertising.— ””
What good advertising firm would promote something in a way that leads to short-term gain (‘Oooh, university X has clever people working at it’) but in the long run makes that thing of no value to the public (growing distrust in science as hyped claims keep getting exposed, as science becomes seen as a competitive sport or another corporate entity)? It can be done better, without falling into nostalgia traps or finger-pointing, if all parties with some stake are willing to enter into dialogue. That is what I realized was lacking and that I was responsible for that—starting a Dialogue = Starting a Mini-Rebellion.
Example 2: More, More, More. When I entered academia as an assistant professor in 1999, the expectation was that I would be the author of two papers per year. However, my Ph.D. advisor, who had been in science for 40 years, told me that two papers were a long-standing rule of thumb and not meant to be viewed as a formalized box that needed to be checked to gain or maintain a job.
There is nothing wrong with productivity expectations. If paid to do my job, I should produce, and the expectations were made clear. However, it was also made clear that if, for example, I produced one high-quality paper in two years, then that would not hurt my career; quality would stand above quantity.
In 2022 my department had an external review. It was called out that some faculty are falling behind in productivity. The lowest average number of publications per year, over five years, from any member of my department was four, i.e., a factor of two increase since I entered academics is insufficient. One of my colleagues had over 20 publications per year. That was not seen as problematic, i.e., there is no such thing as too much production.
Did I notice the increased productivity expectation? Maybe, but I can’t say I Saw it until recently. I felt it in the background but rolled over to it – ‘that’s the way it is’ – without asking if it made sense (e.g., have humans, scientists are humans, evolved to be more than twice as productive over twenty years? Is it possible we are overproducing?).
Productivity metrics can be gamed in ways that do not benefit science (e.g., turn one paper into two). That is a worry, but this example intends to show another way I accepted a corporate model of science. The fact I rolled over to ever-increasing production shows how easily I bought into the corporate ideal of unlimited growth.
Not only did I buy into a corporate ideal, I implicitly passed on the view to students and post-docs that there is nothing I or they could do about increasing productivity demands. As a result, I watched less competitive colleagues, creative colleagues, leave because they did not want to play productivity metrics games.
I could argue that inflated productivity expectations are due to administrators behind the curtains. That’s not reality. Hiring and evaluation in academia come from working academics. That’s me. That I never questioned increased productivity measures, even took drug-like delight in my papers per year increasing, is hypocrisy. Action one is to See that. Action two is to stand up for the idea that enough is enough. Start a dialogue around the corporate sacrilege that scientists produce too many publications. Be verbal in questioning the value of productivity metrics – metrics that come from for-profit metric tracking services that work to increase reliance on metrics. Be verbal in asking, ‘What is reasonable productivity?’
A related issue: Academic publishing thrives on the unlimited growth model. Scientists publishing more papers are a source of revenue. Type’ academic publishing racket’ into a search engine. I got 3,990,000 links. You only need to read a few to see that publishers are making big profits, are double dipping, and are not overly concerned about the damage done to the open exchange of ideas. You will see that vanity journals (e.g., Nature, Science, Cell), and the perceived need to publish within them, have changed the behavior of the science community in detrimental ways.
Who keeps for-profit journals in business? Who does free work for them as an author or referee? Who maintains the idea that if you don’t publish in vanity journals, you haven’t done quality science? People like me. There are alternative dissemination outlets that are more open, less profit-driven, and less vanity based. So why do I not use them? Maybe I justify choices by saying, ‘That’s the nature of the science game.’ Maybe in doing ‘my job,’ I lose attention to the reality that affects what I do, even if it isn’t listed on my job-to-do lists. Maybe I need to remind myself that resistance is in my control. I can stop supporting organizations that limit access to public resources for monetary gains.
Example 3: Anonymity I turned down a TED talk. OK, a TEDx talk. That still leads to a question: Why pass on the exposure? A TEDx talk is a brownie point with universities and funding agencies.
TEDx wanted me to discuss an outreach project involving people of varied socio-economic backgrounds. Many weren’t keen on a professor from an ‘elite’ university. It took time to develop trust and a collective. We got some media exposure that was more about me and where I worked than it was about the project. That undermined the trust that I wasn’t in it for professional gain. It also damaged the collective feel. I could have said no to that exposure, but my ego got in the way. Lesson learned for TEDx.
If a project is of value, do I need credit?
Credit equates to attention. Attention is currency. Do I need to be paid to do what I see as a public good? Why walk onto a TEDx stage, with its rockstar vibe, when that would signal my concern is more about me than the collective – a collective not particularly enamored of TED-style stuff? Exposure can provide private gain and undermine collective good.— ””
Example 4: So Academic. This essay was written by an academic (me) for an academic (myself) and for other academics who may feel uncomfortable with the marketization/privatization of education and science. If it reads academic, then it has failed.
Academic writing is saturated with references. In an academic paper, that statement would come with references to studies that mine academic literature, going back a century, to quantify the rise of references in academic papers. The studies could be broken up by specialty to show different trends in biology versus economics versus _____________ (fill your favorite field). They would be well-referenced as they argued that referencing has gotten out of hand. The irony of examples like this, which are not hard to find in academic literature, is that anyone could determine the validity, or lack thereof, of the statement based on direct observations they could make. No fancy observational instruments are required—just the time to observe and see for yourself.
Spend some time with some academics, and you will hear statements like “The literature shows that …” I heard it often, likely said it myself, before it hit me that the statement is an affront to science (with a sprinkling of snobbery). The literature doesn’t show anything! It’s observations, evidence, and analysis that can do that. The difference between “Read the literature” and “Have a look at the evidence” is not one of semantics. It reflects different minds sets. One is oh-so academic and fuels the production of more academic products with little action. The other offers a chance for practical action(s).
Don’t get me wrong, I love to read, and one should read about topics one is interested in (I will provide a reading list for those interested).
I came to see in myself that an overly academic attitude, with its reliance on the literature and research studies, can prevent self-realization and actions that follow from that realization.— ””
If I needed funded studies and research literature to determine that university press releases undermine scientific integrity, I would not See reality – a reality I have direct access to and am immersed in. If I did not take the time to observe for myself, I could continue to read the literature and say, “Yeah! I see the problem” without Seeing the problem (me being part of the problem). I could propose more studies to support an insight right before my eyes. Something that could be Seen directly if I took the time to look up the next article from the next proposal to fund a further study to increase my productivity metrics further.
There is a connection here to another example: Diversity in academics. Do you see it if you need to read academic papers documenting a lack of diversity in academics to determine if it is a reality? Will you See that corporatization of universities works against diversity by pushing out individuals who don’t have interests, tendencies, or foundations in market-style competitions for personal gains? Will you see that complicit in privatizing science and academics works against diversity?
I realized I needed to stop being so academic to be able to break away from being complicit. As someone paid to be academic, which limits time for resistance, I see that as a rebellion. How you see it is up to you.
Incomplete Reading List
Bohm, D. (1996) On Dialogue, London: Routledge.
Bridle, J. (2019) New Dark Age: Technology, Knowledge and the End of the Future, London: Verso.
Brown, W. (2015) Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution, New York: Zone Books.
Carr, N. (2011) The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, London: W.W. Norton and Company.
Cohen, D. and Mikaelian, A. (2021) The Privitization of Everything, London: Chelsea Green Publishing.
Desmet, M. (2022) The Psychology of Totalitarianism, New York: The New Press.
Dorner, D. (1996) The Logic of Failure: Recognizing and Avoiding Error in Complex Situations, New York: Springer.
Espeland, W.N., and Sauder, M. (2016) Engines of Anxiety: Academic Rankings, Reputation, and Accountability, New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
Feyerabend, P. (1975) Against Method, London: Verso.
Funtowicz, S. and Ravetz, J.R. (1990) Uncertainty and Quality in Science for Policy, Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers.
Han, B-C. (2015) The Burnout Society, Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Hedges, C. (2009) Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle, New York: Bold Type Books.
Huxley, A. (1932) Brave New World, London: Chatto and Windus.
James, A. (2012) Assholes: A Theory, New York: Doubleday.
Marmion, J-F. ed. (2020) The Psychology of Stupidity, New York: Penguin Books.
Mirowski, P. (2021) Science-Mart, Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Odell, J. (2019) How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, New York: Melville House Printing.
Orwell, G. (1949) Nineteen Eighty-Four, London: Harvill Secker.
O’Neil, C. (2016) Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy, New York: Crown Publishing.
Ravetz, J.R. (1971) Scientific knowledge and its social problems. Oxford University Press.
Ritchie, S. (2020) Science Fictions: How Fraud, Bias, Negligence, and Hype Undermine the Search for Truth, New York: Metropolitan Books.
Robinson, K. (2001) Out of Our Minds, Chichester, West Sussex: Capstone Publishing.
Slaughter, S., and Leslie, L.L. (19977) Academic Capitalism: Politics, Policies, and the Entrepreneurial University, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Smolin, L. (2007) The Trouble with Physics, New York: Houghton Mifflin.
Maisuria, A., and Helmes, S. (2019) Life for the Academic in the Neoliberal University, Abingdon, Oxon: Taylor & Francis.
Mittelman, J.H. (2018) Implausible Dream: The World-Class University and Repurposing Higher Education, Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Morris, J. (2021) Badvertisng, Newburyport, MA: Career Press.
Price, D.J.d.S. (1963) Little Science, Big Science, New York: Columbia University Press.
Schumacher, E.F. (1973) Small in Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered, London: Blond and Briggs.
Standing, G. (2011) The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class, London: Bloomsbury Publishing.
Sutherland, R. (2019) Alchemy, London: WH Allen.
Taleb, N. (2018) Skin in the Game, New York: Random House.
Tufte, E.R. (2006) Beautiful Evidence, Chesire, CT: Graphic Press.
William, J. (2018) Stand Out of Our Light: Freedom and Resistance in the Attention Economy, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Wolin, S.S. (2008) Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism, Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Zinman, J. (2000) Real Science: What It Is and What It Means, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Articles: Stop Being So Academic. If you want more on a specific topic, drop me a line (email@example.com), and I will suggest an article or two. I have accumulated so many that a list would be a pain to create if I tried to arrange it in a useful way. (That’s my lazy rationale … fittingly, being lazy after doing a fair chunk of work is a rebellion against the drive for more productivity.)