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.’)






What academic publishers wish we knew

Friends, colleagues,

I have privileged information that I need to share with you.

A couple of weeks ago I went to a seminar for academic publishers. They were in attendance to learn about ‘the researcher of the future.’

I was there as a ‘future researcher’ panellist along with six other ECRs, and we were joined by individuals working at the intersection of academic publishing and innovation.

The delegates came to learn about our perspective on the academia-publishing relationship, and they’d paid between £200 and £500 for the privilege. Being surrounded by academic publishers all day, I couldn’t fail to learn about their perspective on the relationship. And, though some of it seems obvious, I want to share what I learnt:

1) Let’s start with this: academic publishers would not exist if academics didn’t exist; without us they got nothing! Sure, we need them because they publish our work for us, but at a push we could find other ways of disseminating our research whilst they, on the other hand, would cease to have a raison d’être.

2) Next: the word in my uni corridors is that to get published you have to jump through whatever hoops the immovable academic publishers throw your way. But that is so not what our relationship looks like to them. Remember, there are lots of academic publishers, all vying for our custom, all competing with each other. To survive they’ve got to attract us, and to attract us they’ve got to be attractive. Let’s take a moment to think about the fact that ±40 organisations were prepared to pay between £200 and £500 to learn about the needs and wants of the academic community. Friends, colleagues, they are not immovable; they want to flex to meet our needs because that means we’ll give them custom and keep them in business.

3) And so here’s the next point: although they want to flex to meet our needs, they don’t know what our needs are. Because we’ve got it into our minds that they are immovable and don’t care about us, we don’t reach out to tell them what we want.

4) Final point: this is kind of surprising, and also kind of not: lots of them don’t know what it’s like to be a researcher. It’s not just our needs that they don’t know about, they don’t know what our day-to-day life looks like, nor the nature of the patterns on the many plates we are trying to keep spinning. And why would they? They work in publishing houses; we work in universities. But they want to know. In the afternoon networking session, seminar delegates started coming up to my ECR colleagues and me, telling us that our insights were the best part of the seminar. At first we joked and assumed they were just being polite. But so many publishers said it to us that we ended up believing it. One publisher said she had been to a similar meeting about researcher needs and that there had been 200 publishers and just two researchers! It seems that, except through article submission portals and the likes, communication between them and us is lacking. Yet this isn’t what they want: they want to build, strengthen and develop communication channels.

To summarise:

  • Academic publishers exist because we exist.
  • They want to flex to meet our needs and wants.
  • They won’t know what we want and need if we don’t tell them.
  • They want to develop the relationship between them and us.

To conclude:

A few months ago a friend told me about ‘the Hero’s Journey.’ It’s a narrative structure that crops up in countless stories. Once you’ve heard it, you start seeing it everywhere. The bare bones are this: there is a hero. He or she sets out on an adventure. Along the journey the hero encounters obstacles and villains, but also meets helpers who help the hero overcome those obstacles. There’s an ultimate challenge, and though it seems touch and go, ultimately the hero overcomes it and returns home changed and triumphant.

Why am I talking about the Hero’s Journey? Like I said, I’ve started seeing the structure everywhere, including in the researcher-publisher story. So let’s tell the story:

We, the researchers, are obviously the heroes (!) and to survive and triumph we must publish. Along the journey to publication various obstacles get in our way, including academic publishers….

See, I reckon we’ve spun a story for ourselves wherein we see academic publishers as obstacles; it’s us against them. But that’s not how it is. They want to help us, they want to get our publications out there; they aren’t villains, they’re helpers!

I’m not suggesting that the journey isn’t challenging and problematic, but actually, if you think about it, the obstacles we encounter such as the process of peer review, are issues with the system, and they are challenges that publishers have to deal with too.

So my concluding thought is this: why don’t we write a different narrative, see academic publishers as they want us to see them, engage when we can and look for opportunities to do so? We should remember that they want to meet our needs and want to help us. Let’s try to see them as helpers. After all, in this new narrative we’ll still get to be the heroes.

What next?