What are we doing to ourselves?

Like many other experienced academics, I’m often called upon to review articles submitted for publication in academic journals. Over the years I’ve noticed two things happening.

The first relates to the growing number of South African submissions I’m asked to review. Is this because I’m popular as a reviewer of South African work or is it that the number of South African submissions to journals is going up? The second observation relates to the quality of those submissions, many of which do nothing less than make me cringe.

If it is the case that the number of submissions is increasing and the quality of those submissions is not always as good as it might be, then two questions arise.
First, how much of this is due to the formula used to fund our public universities and, second, what is the quest for funding doing to scholarship in South Africa and to our reputations as scholars?

Thanks to the formula used to allocate subsidies to South Africa’s public universities, the financial rewards for publications in accredited journals are enormous. A journal is accredited if it appears on certain international lists or on the list of South African journals approved for subsidy purposes by the department of higher education and training. The money rewarded for the publication accrues to the university but, depending on the institution, some of this may be passed on to individual authors, either as payment into a “research account”, which can then be used to fund conference attendance and so on, or, in some institutions, as a supplement to salaries. When the reward for a single article published in an accredited journal stands at R100 000 or more, it is hardly surprising that the pressure to publish is enormous.

The ability to produce research has always been valued in academic reward systems such as promotion. Although the very nature of the university means that this should be so, the question is whether this valuing is being skewed by the financial gain associated with publication.

At institutional levels, the chase for publications sometimes involves setting up “emerging researcher” and other programmes intended to provide support and development for research and writing. In some cases this has meant lucrative pickings for “consultants” paid to supplement existing institutional capacity to provide this support.

While the development of all academics as researchers needs to be supported, my concern here is that, even when submissions to journals result from this sort of initiative, they are often still not good enough for publication.

Recently, I was asked to review an article that offered profuse thanks to the emerging-researcher programme at the author’s university. However, the research on which this particular submission was based was so poorly conceptualised and designed that no writer, regardless of how good, could make anything publishable out of it. As a reviewer, I spent several hours (which could have been spent on my own work) reading and responding to the article and effectively doing the work that should have been done in the emerging-researcher programme in the first place.

While the goal of all reviewing is to advance scholarship, this sort of demand is abusive. Even worse, it is arguably an abuse of the emerging researcher programme itself, which should be a space for researchers to develop and not simply a space to chase publications before they are ready to be produced.

Another emerging strategy in the quest for publication appears to involve getting students to write for publication. Clearly, any piece of research submitted for a doctoral qualification should be worthy of being published. However, without substantial input from supervisors at all stages of the research process, in my experience—both as a supervisor and examiner—very few pieces of research produced at master’s level have the potential to result in a publication, especially when the research is produced as the basis for a “half thesis” in a programme involving both course work and research.

In an ideal world supervisors might be able to provide this input. In reality many are so pressured by the number of students they are called upon to supervise that their ability to provide the sort of direction and guidance required is limited. Nevertheless, this still doesn’t seem to halt the stream of low-quality submissions to journals from those working at master’s level who have been pushed to get a publication out of their work.

There is, moreover, a new development in the chase for publications involving students—a development that stems from the notion of inquiry-based learning at undergraduate level. Inquiry-based learning involves getting students to learn by inquiring—in other words by doing some research. And, as Australia-based academic Angela Brew informed the annual conference of the Higher Education Learning and Teaching Association of Southern Africa in her keynote address a few years ago, inquiry-based learning is a growing phenomenon in other parts of the world.

While I wholeheartedly support the notion of inquiry-based learning, because I believe that higher education is about teaching students how to make knowledge rather than simply getting them to acquire it, the idea that getting students to collect a bit of data and then have a naïve stab at analysing it can result in a publication in an accredited journal concerns me.

The result, when this happens, is often a poorly theorised piece of work—unsurprisingly because undergraduates, and even “early” postgraduates, are unlikely to have developed the conceptual understandings necessary to map the field and understand how and where different positions can come into play and how those positions can inform the research design as well as the analysis.
And, of course, this sort of submission to a journal requires reviewers to work hard at pointing out the shortcomings to justify a rejection or a recommendation for major reworking.

While much of my argument in this piece could be seen to be about protecting the reviewers of work submitted for publication, ultimately it is about more serious concerns —­ concerns about the nature of scholarship itself.

Is the chase for publications pushing us to be less rigorous, less demanding in producing new knowledge and attempting to disseminate knowledge than we might otherwise be? Is it pushing us even further in understandings of knowledge as a commodity—something that is produced to be “sold” and, in a hyper-capitalist world, produced efficiently and sold for maximum profit?

If this is the case, what is this doing to South African scholarship in general and also to its reputation both nationally and internationally? In other words, and given that scholarship is at the heart of what it means to be an academic, what are we doing to ourselves?

Professor Chrissie Boughey, DPhil, is dean of teaching and learning at Rhodes University

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