science politics

Academia is under attack from two angles, which seems to suggest that we may not have decades to get our house in order.

The first and older of this two-pronged attack comes from politics. Around the world, anti-science movements seek to discredit reason and abolish science. Be it abolishing tenure, doubting the value of publicly funded science or forcing entire institutions to close, authoritarian politicians around the globe strive to stifle and subjugate academia. Creationists, anti-vaxxers, climate-deniers or anti-vivisectionists are supporting and playing this political game, flush with funds from special interests, broadening the political attack on reason. In some cases, the attacks are explicitly launched referencing unreliable science, others come from different directions. Anything that can be used against scholarship will be used. In addition to these focused attacks on science and often scientists, there is a more diffuse attack on facts, aiming to undermine public trust in institutions, with the goal to increase the effectiveness of campaigns designed to promote the personal cult around certain individuals: when facts do not matter any more in what has been called a post-factual world, opinions and feeling remain as the only currency in public debate. The consequences of such long-term efforts can be seen in neoliberal policies pushing the corporatization of universities, entangling scholars around the world in precarious working conditions, suffering from hypercompetition and avoiding anything that could be seen as risky. Increased bureaucracy imposing numbers games combine with tiny salaries and huge workloads to create the vulnerable academic, caught in the iron fists of feudal PIs and professional administrators. The degree to which academics must endure such circumstances varies dramatically between institutions and countries, but as a global phenomenon, they stifle innovation, critique and promote not only questionable research practices, but the active dissemination of “hype and hyperbole“: misinformation, breeding distrust.

A second front was opened about ten years ago now from an entirely different and mostly unanticipated direction. More than just flush with funds, but this time financed by academia herself, academic publishers started (escalated?) their own attack on science by gobbling up and developing digital surveillance technologies. To expand the sources of user data, these corporations bought digital tools covering all aspects of academic life, from literature search, data analysis, writing, citing or outreach, all the way to citation analysis for research assessment. These corporations formerly known as publishers are using their expanded digital surveillance network to accomplish two separate goals. First, a copy of the data is aggregated with private data from scholarly users and sold, either to advertisers, to law enforcement agencies not allowed to collect such intrusive data themselves, or to any authoritarian government interested in identifying potential opposition intelligentsia. The second goal is to expand the monopolies they enjoy on scholarly content, to a monopoly on all scholarly services, i.e., the mother of all vendor lock-ins. Packaging all the different tools in a single bundle and selling it to institutions akin to subscription “Big Deals”, would make it impossible for any institution buying such a package to ever switch to a different provider again. An analogy outside of academia would be a merger of Microsoft, SAP, Google and Facebook. There are two corporations so far that are standing ready to deploy such bundles, RELX (parent of Elsevier) and Holtzbrinck (SpringerNature, Digital Science). A related data analytics corporation specializing on scholarly data is Clarivate (Web of Science, ProQuest).

Both onslaughts aim to undermine independent scholarship and subjugate it for special interests, be it political or financial. To some extent, both have been quite successful already. In fact, in the use of journal rank and other citation metrics, the political and financial fronts have closed ranks and are cooperating. The worst outcome of succumbing to these attacks would be the destruction of publicly funded science. At best, loosing on both fronts would entail academia finding itself permanently strapped in neoliberal purgatory, with a vast precariate, cut-throat competition and results nobody can take seriously any more, in other words: Idiocracy.

It is starting to become clear that to defend against these attacks with their multi-faceted consequences all over academia, it will take swift and decisive counter-measures, both within academia and in cooperation with initiatives outside. Inside academia, first and foremost, open flanks must be closed to allow the enemy only the smallest attack surface possible. Productivity and impact metrics have long been known to be both flawed and counter-productive in that they tend to reward unreliable science. Because this has been known for such a long time, calls for a reform of the academic reward system are old and have recently redoubled. Such calls are, of course warranted, justified and appropriate. However, implementation of a replacement may come too late, if these calls are not supplemented with actions that operate on much smaller timescales.

With research assessment and peer-review taking place on all levels from hiring and tenure decisions, promotion, funding and renewal, nearly all scholars are involved, either as participants or as evaluators, often in rotating roles over time. This means that grassroots movements striving for a change in the reward system face the challenge of winning the hearts and minds of every single researcher on the planet. Just how big is this challenge? Citing OECD statistics, the 2018 STM report lists about 7.1 million full-time equivalent researchers globally. Given that many of these will be part time employees and sites like ResearchGate list about 17 million users, adding at least 50% to these 7 million or a total of about 11 million currently active, individual researchers is probably required for a lower bound estimate. Convincing all of them to change how they assess science is not going to happen overnight.

How could one possibly increase the speed by which academia can replace its reward system? A straightforward approach would be to take away the means that prop up the current reward system, forcing academia to come up with a replacement. Ideally, one would want to replace the technical infrastructure that maintains the current reward system and replace it with one that not just necessitates, but facilitates the creation of a new reward system. There are several ways to do this. Last year, ten experts have proposed that regulators and funding agencies generate incentives for institutions to shift funds away from the journals upon which much of the current reward system is based, and towards a modern journal replacement that facilitates the development of novel reward solutions.

Such a replacement is capable of stopping the financial onslaught on science and providing the means to guard data against corporate greed. Inasmuch as the old reward system incentivized hype, hyperbole and questionable research practices, the replacement also helps stem the flow of irreproducible science. As such, academia has the power to set these processes in motion in self-defense. If academia has the collective will remains to be seen. To defend against the broader attack on facts, such actions can ever only be necessary prerequisites that need to be complemented by other initiatives engaging the broader public.

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Posted on  at 17:24