Research and market pressures

Dear colleagues,

How can we understand the pressures to promote research in Australia?

Currently the ERA (Excellence in Research for Australia) is pushing academics to publish in top-rated journals. Prior to this was the RQF (Research Quality Framework), which emphasised publishing quality and social relevance. As well, for years universities have been receiving funding based on publications in peer-reviewed journals.

These incentive systems are certainly influencing the choices that academics make about research projects and about target journals and other outlets for publication.

Some analysts of knowledge production have argued there is a shift in academic research from an orientation to other scholars to an orientation to practical purposes, typically business and government. One framework calls these mode 1 and mode 2 models. Do Australian university research incentive systems reflect a wider orientation of higher education to commercial purposes?

I came across an intriguing article that throws light on this question: Mathieu Albert, "Universities and the market economy: the differential impact on knowledge production in sociology and economics," Higher Education, 2003. It deals with two universities in Quebec and an earlier time period but is still most illuminating.

Albert made a detailed analysis of research by 33 economists and sociologists at two Montreal universities, analysing their cvs and interviewing them at length. He compared two cohorts: those who obtained tenure 1974-1983, before significant commercial influence on higher education, and 1989-1998, after this influence became prominent.

Albert plotted outputs in peer-reviewed journals, top-ranking journals and in more popular media, plus grant applications and successes, all connected to obtaining tenure. His detailed analysis provides a way to check whether a shift to practical problem-solving is actually occurring in economics and sociology.

His findings are surprising. In economics, the trend is in the opposite direction. At the two Montreal universities, over time it became more imperative that economists publish for other economists. Doing consultancies for government or writing political articles are no longer paths to tenure or status in the discipline - quite the contrary. Albert links this to the hegemony of neo-classical economics: anyone adopting alternative viewpoints or publishing in non-economics journals (even high status ones) is not taken seriously as an economist. Far from there being pressure for more commercially-oriented research, it is now essential to do what Albert calls PFP research: production for producers. The alternative - PFNP,   production for non-producers - is considered second-rate.

Here's a quote from one of Albert's interviewees:

"In economics [production for people outside the university world] is worthless, indeed even negative. Even worse, it proves that we don't get the respect we should in this profession. ... If I achieve as much as my colleagues in the scientific arena and if, moreover, I'm involved in other types of projects, why should this present a handicap? Because it indicates [...] that I do not see scientific publications as the only standard of performance. It also brands me as a maverick. I'm convinced that if I had not devoted time and effort to non-academic activities, research contracts, television appearances and projects with citizen's groups, the department would have been much more disposed to granting me tenure readily. Because I would have been considered one of them; a genuine academic; which I am not. And therefore, this is a real handicap." (p. 159)

In sociology the situation is not so stark. Because sociology is more fragmented theoretically, there is no hegemonic expectation for publication in a set of high-status journals. Nevertheless, the trend in the Montreal universities has been towards greater emphasis on PFP research, though there remains relative freedom for PFNP activities.

In light of this analysis, the ERA reflects a move towards the dominance of PFP research, with practical applications and political engagement lowered in credibility. This will mainly affect non-tenured and junior academics who, to survive and advance, will need to perform according by PFP criteria.

Albert notes that senior Montreal economists who achieved stature through the PFP road are able to engage in so-called political work with less risk to their status. Perhaps this is because they are fully enculturated in the neo-classical perspective.

Albert bases his analysis on work by sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. In this picture, there is an ongoing struggle over the orientation of academic work, especially whether it is towards other academics in the same field or towards wider audiences. Albert's study suggests that pressure for an academic orientation is likely to be especially great in fields with hegemonic perspectives.

So if you want to engage in popularisation or research for non-academic audiences, a career is more feasible in fields that are interdisciplinary or fragmented theoretically. Even so, it may not be easy due to the pressure to obtain research grants and to publish for other publishers.

3 September 2010

Thanks to Mathieu Albert, Frank Huang and Anne Melano for useful comments.

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