15 Feb 2012

An academic failure to serve the public good

This post is an update on my continuing thoughts about being an effective economist and public intellectual (see this and this). Next week I will discuss blogging as a means of changing ideas and policies, but this post is about the core mission of academics: serving the public interest by improving the quality of our ideas and the way we think.

Unfortunately, it's more of a lament over failure (with diagnosis of its causes) than an optimistic appraisal or recipe for improvement.

Let's start with the assumption that an academic professor or researcher is paid to promote new ideas and teach students.

Now, we need to somehow measure and prioritize outputs. Teaching output is relatively easy to measure (student evaluations and progress), but not as important as research that changes how we think of the world.

Research impact is, unfortunately, difficult to measure. The current method relies on "impact," which basically boils down to publishing in "top" journals. (A top journal is one that other journals tend to cite more often.)

Now it gets ugly, since it's pretty common to just count one's publications and give more weight to those that appear in top journals. The actual content of articles is less important.

The importance of this "publish or perish" model has resulted in a massive increase in the number of papers presenting incremental (often trivial) changes on established themes (supply of ideas) and a proportionate increase in the number of journals accepting less-than-stellar papers (demand for ideas).

This "market" suffers in two ways. First, academics spend very little time on promoting their ideas once they are published. Second, those ideas are often irrelevant to the real world.

The result is too many papers that nobody can read in journals that nobody has heard of. And by "nobody," I don't just mean the public. I also mean other academics. They are often too busy on with their own writing to read. (Very few can even keep track of all the "relevant" papers in their specialty; reading -- when it occurs -- is often limited to the title, abstract and journal name. Only graduate students read articles from start to finish.)

Although I'd prefer that academics change their work ethic to do the right thing (spending more time writing and marketing fewer better papers), I'm afraid that most of them are going to continue to publish irrelevant rubbish. Some do it out of habit (they prefer a system that gave them success) and others don't care about serving the public, but the majority cannot be bothered to spend individual time on a collective action problem that concerns everyone (my preferred solution is here).

That said, there are some small moves in the right direction, towards easier public access to academic journals or becoming more relevant, but nothing big is going to happen until academics must compete to serve the public good instead of engaging in practices that are best described as a circlejerk.

Bottom Line: Academics need to produce and transmit knowledge that's useful to the public. The current system of publish or perish gives them little incentive to do so.