How efficient is academia?

Efficiency academia

Last month I attended a seminar in Cardiff. Up got a distinguished professor to deliver his paper. Up got the distinguished professor who was tasked with introducing him. Here’s how the dialogue went:

Distinguished Professor A: It is my great pleasure to welcome Professor B. We last saw each other two years ago, at a conference in the south where Professor B gave a great paper on X…

Distinguished Professor B: [interrupting]… oh, that paper? Huh! That paper just got published last week. Two years on…That’s the system alright.

Two years? Step away from the situation and that’s kinda nuts.

Last year I attended a talk on ‘mission driven business’ at the RSA. There the entrepreneur Michael Hayman said something that I’ve not been able to forget since. He said:

We are living in dog years.

By which he meant that the world moves so fast these days and things change so quickly that where 30 years ago a year was a year, nowadays, a year goes by and seven years of change have happened.

Today’s world is operating in dog years and, last time I checked, academia was still situated in today’s world.

A two-year publication cycle? More like a 14-year publication cycle. That’s absurd.

How efficient is this system? Is it even working?

About 82%of articles published in the humanities are never cited. 32% of articles in the social sciences are never cited. The percentage is 27% for the natural sciences and 12% for medicine. Publications get you a job. Publications keep you in your job. But half of them are just being added to the pile to gather dust, whilst beyond academia information is increasingly consumed in 140 character chunks or from fleeting glances across a number of websites.

How efficient is this system? Is it even working?

A couple of weeks ago I attended a talk delivered by the NCCPE about Public Engagement as a ‘Pathway to Impact.’ During the session, we had to get into small groups and look at 3* and 4* case studies and try to work out what made them 3* or 4.* That way we’ll know what to do for the next REF. It was as if I’d just gone back 15 years and was sitting in a biology lab at school, surrounded by classmates, trying to work out what had made the GCSE exam response an A* grade. Teaching to exams. Really? Are we really going there? That’s how we are going to approach Impact?

How efficient is this system? Is it even working?

A couple of months ago I met a PhD student based in the biosciences. His research feeds into a big European project on nanoparticles. “Sounds fascinating,” I said. “It is,” he replied, “but it’s not getting to the people who need to hear it; the farmers. It’s not even in the appropriate format.”

How efficient is this system? Is it even working?

It feels like for weeks now I’ve done nothing but come across junior and senior academics who think that something’s not right. Who think that the system is inefficient and that it’s not working. An upsetting dual attitude of disillusionment and acceptance echoes around the institution. And it sucks. It really gets you down.

system failure

But aren’t academics supposed to be smart?

Surely if anyone is going to be able to sort out a system failure it’s going to be the crowd of people whose remit it is to have intelligent and original thoughts?


  1. Larivière, V., Gingras, Y. and Archambault, É. (2009), The decline in the concentration of citations, 1900–2007. J. Am. Soc. Inf. Sci., 60: 858–862. doi: 10.1002/asi.21011.

(See also Dahlia Remler’s blogpost ‘Reviewing the literature on academic citations.’)






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