29 July 2015 Volume :3 Issue :35

The UKZN Griot Of Cost to Company

The UKZN Griot Of Cost to Company
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Keyan G Tomaselli

Universities generate funds thus: state subsidies based on student throughput, academics increasingly being required to raise their own research funding, the perish syndrome, registration of patents, and so on. An individual academic’s value is now calculated as cost-to-company rather than contribution to society.  Are we simply profit potential (or loss) centres irrespective of social impact? 

Apart from student subsidy, the one consistent but variable factor is publication in so-called “accredited” journals and books. Here is how this works in South Africa: research and publication is incentive-led, rather than curiosity-led (as it is elsewhere). The Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) pays universities R120 000 for every article published in approved lists of academic journals.  Universities allocate these funds differently - some put them in a general pot to be applied for by researchers, others top slice a percentage to be used by the author for further research, while some permit their authors to bank a sub-portion as taxable income.  Most universities pay for their research infrastructure thus payouts to authors range from zero to R50 000+, depending on employer policy.

Research should not be about income but about finding something out. Method is the way that the finding happens.  Theory is the framework that interprets the data popped loose by method.   The purpose of research is to explain something.  Once explained, then the outcome is communicated via publication. Apart from students and peers, few articles are read by professionals, policy makers or the general public.

Academic articles are primarily read by other academics, and thus have low readerships.  Comparatively few get cited, though well-read papers can secure hundreds, even thousands, of mentions.   The majority of articles get no citations at all. Many contemporary students resist reading, so even prescribed articles may have little impact. It’s always a pleasure then, when students are first introduced to me that they actually connect the name to a book they have read.  Regrettably, much top class work simply disappears in the cacophony of journals - both legitimate and predatory - that have appeared to meet the demand for publication.

If so few are reading academic articles what’s the point? Simply this – academic work is often done for its own blue skies sake.  That’s how DNA was discovered, that’s how conceptual advances occur.  Publications do emanate from planned projects and other activities also. Some journals do popularize this research and discoveries as do the researchers themselves.

Legitimate journal and book publishers have spawned massive international empires that sport profits that make Apple seem like a backyard operation.  Where Apple has to pay for its labour, plant and innovation, however, it’s the public that pays academic salaries. Journals and books would simply not be affordable were the publishers to pay for their labour and research costs also.  Even with free labour in the form of voluntary editors and reviewers, the cost of publication of a single article in an international journal is about USD 5 000 (usually absorbed by the journal and/or publisher).  The articles that hit the download and citation jackpots cross-subsidize the majority that don’t, as intellectually valuable as they may be potentially.

It is bemusing when earnest young academics accuse the big multinational publishers of making excessive profits.  Universities and authors have been doing the same for years by milking the DHET subsidy.   If the publishers are to waive their profits then so should authors decline their research incentives?   Either way, we are all implicated in the publication value chain. The ethical way to managing it is to do research that counts rather than just counting the research that is done.

The big publishers issue guidelines on how to market one’s own articles, supported by their own campaigns.  But few South African authors bother with these support mechanisms.   For most, publication is the end product as it popped loose the research incentive subsidy. Where journalists write for readers, academics largely write for themselves (or for meeting their performance management [PM] units). And, when academics publish mainly for their academic auditors, they tend to forget the investment made by the public (that includes students) in their work, whether as research subjects or as taxpayers. 

Some preeminent scholars will publish but a few papers during an entire lifetime, but their impact will be of Nobel Prize proportions.   My recurring example is Peter Higgs’s whose low publication output was an embarrassment to his own university, notwithstanding the significance of his discovery of ‘the God particle’.   Other scholars do meet their PM targets by simply engaging in conveyer belt publishing that is meaningless in the larger scheme of things.  This is where the NRF ratings assessment really do work: often, in assessing the self-selected top ten outputs submitted by an applicant, one realises that they are often just number crunching repetitions with difference. Since curiosity-led research is unpredictable, time consuming and costly, run-of-the-mill by-the-numbers research and publication prevails. This is what university auditors want: subsidy not significance - after all, they have got bills to pay.

Academic research does matter. Such work is not ‘academic’ in the lay sense of the term. That is, it’s not irrelevant.  Academics do impact policy, planning and the ways in which ordinary people make sense. Some well-known commentators also offer endless sound bites on radio and TV – which creates the impression that very few such commentators are accessible.  These usual suspects will comment on anything, from African studies to African locusts. To the media, I say, get some new, more diverse and refreshing voices.

Beyond the university research economy is the public, taxpayers who support researchers.  How to bridge the readerships? Newspapers often précis research articles, and many academics do write stories on their research in ordinary, entertaining language, in popular media.  If the public is paying for the research then academics should also speak to it in every forum possible from Nature to Your Family.  Many do – in magazines, newspapers, as broadcasters and as public intellectuals.  But this activity is not incentivized by universities, even as community engagement, which is considered but an add-on to our duties. If the public pays the bills it should be told what we are doing.  That's how research becomes relevant. The web-based weekly The Conversation, inaugurated in South Africa in May, is doing just that in ordinary English.

Previously, publish or perish simply meant loss of esteem within the research community; in the neoliberal age when academic auditors know the cost of everything but the value of nothing, it means that academics who fail to balance their cost to company will simply perish. That is, they will be denied promotion or be retrenched, or their departments closed, or they will be referred to "counselling" to mend their ways.  We all need to become intellectual entrepreneurs if we are not to actually cost the company.  But the company also needs to realise the negative cost of costing conveyer belt production and losing sight of significant intellectual work that can take a lifetime to materialise.  The Higg's are the backbone of the academy.

Keyan Tomaselli is Distinguished Professor, University of Johannesburg and Professor Emeritus at UKZN.  He can be grioted or garroted at tomasell@ukzn.ac.za, whichever is the preferred method.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this column are the author’s own.

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