Saturday, 8 November 2008

Managerialism vs enquiry

In refusing to consider a newly-submitted paper for publication in CM&E, I have clearly ruffled the feathers of a colleague and his co-author. I refuse even to send it for refereeing. The author, who is extremely prolific, is angry with me. Interestingly, a couple of years ago, I rejected one of his papers after receiving negative referee comments and he swore to have nothing more to do with us, such was his indignation. So when he submitted a new paper to CM&E, I felt justified in refusing to consider it for publication, on the basis that he had already dissociated himself completely from the journal (including a refusal to referee papers for us). His reaction was, understandably, irate, but I think we never quite got to the real point in our exchanges of e-mails about what had happened, dealing only with his anger, rather than the substantive points.

On reflecting about the underlying issues, I think that the reason for my discomfort with this author's papers is more profound than the ostensible points that I had latched on to in our heated exchanges. There are several academics who appear to be operating in a different world from the one that academics seem to have occupied in the past. Traditionally, the role of universities has been strongly connected with enquiry, discovery and learning. These days, for political and economic reasons, the success of universities needs to be measured through proxies, such as publication rates, citations and research income. As he is quick to point out in his riposte to my rejection, this author is a very important academic with literally hundreds of journal papers to his name and lots of research council grants. Two previous experiences, one with him and another with his co-author, resulted in me rejecting their papers from CM&E, followed by copious argumentative e-mails in which they made various accusations of inadequate refereeing, feeling that the referees and editors did not understand what they are doing. The feeling of the authors was that their brilliant research was being denied publication because of the impoverished imagination of dull referees and editors who were not bright enough to see the inherent value of the work. The reality was that the work was typically a cursory review of literature followed by an unimaginative survey, poorly designed and executed, with unsurprising findings. Usually, the process involves trying to see if something already known as generally true turns out to be specifically true in the construction sector, with no rationale for the hypothesis that the construction sector might be inherently different from the rest of society. This is a worrying phenomenon. Rather than a science that is styled to develop generalizations from specific observations, this is a science designed to enumerate specificities from accepted generalizations. Such papers proliferate now that universities and the academics within them need to justify themselves in terms of metrics.

The result of the increasing predilection for measuring academic output is that a lot of very mediocre and uninteresting research is published, not as a result of enquiry, learning or discovery, but solely for the purpose of promotion of authors and their institutions who wish to climb up various league tables. And they are doing so well that they feel fully justified in their feeling that they are more important than the journal, more important than the referees and editors, and personally more important than the processes of enquiry which ought to underpin academic work. Regardless of the rights and wrongs of the particular case, when authors think they are more important than journals, something is very wrong. No wonder they get so annoyed!

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