25 July 2018 Volume :6 Issue :34

The UKZN Griot. Citations and Currency

The UKZN Griot.  Citations and Currency

The metrics apostles keep developing more and more quantitative measures to evaluate published work: impact factors, eigen factors, h-indexes, and cited half-life. The emphasis is not also on ‘who reads’. Like with the DHET incentive that rewards quantity rather than significance, we write to be cited, not to be actually read. It’s like a student coming to class to sign the register, rather than to learn anything. The reader, the target or consumer of publication, simply does not exist.

The citation game is rather like cricket, where scores can get into multiple hundreds, in comparison to soccer where scores (goals) rarely breach single figures. In terms of this logic, cricket has higher h-factors than soccer, making soccer look like failure. But soccer, despite the low scores, is the world’s most popular and obscenely well paid sport, even as its players are traded between clubs (like slaves of old); not so cricket, despite its high scores and player rankings, though its international players don’t do too badly. 

My point is this: some disciplines can score highly due to the nature of their epistemologies and other disciplines score lowly because the publications (scores) accrue more slowly. With the Humanities, in the latter category, it is the gurus who are cited, usually uncritically like The Bible, but those excluded from gurudom or the closed research community will be ignored. There is no currency in citing or debating the work of an emergent or unknown scholar or a once-off paper written by an MA student as they lack academic value.

Thus, does even top notch work not get cited; including the journals in which the work is published?

Some small-minded Humanities scholars punish their rivals by not citing their key works on the same topics. This may occur because of prior conflict, competition, or some other perceived slight. More likely, they don’t want to draw reader attention to more comprehensive, possibly better researched, work on the same topic. Or, they think they might lose their identity. So, they pretend to reinvent the wheel and create the impression of originality. They do not provide a route map for readers of other related work – as is done in the sciences and social sciences – lest they cede originality to the originals. Or, their scope of reading is so myopic that they are unaware of key sources. Or maybe, they just ran out of space and had to delete some entries to fit the page allocation. No matter, the referees are often at fault here for not addressing these lacks.

In the Humanities, gurudum is feted by privileging the name of the source over the object of the sentence, as in ‘Foucault, reading Derrida, responding to Spivak, who draws on Bourdieu, who supped wine with Baudrillard, who once met Castells…’, in explaining something that the author forgot by the end of such a tortuous composition. Ok, I exaggerate a little. This kind of name dropping looks very profound and the author implies that s/he has actually read all the collected works of these scholars. When authors start new paragraphs with the names of sources, this makes for cumbersome writing and laboured reading. And this source-led writing mutes the strength of the argument as the authors, not the argument, become the object of the sentence.

Authors in the Humanities tend to write for themselves rather than for readers. Bean counters develop software that works for them rather than for those whose work they are counting. Administrators who have no idea what they are counting, count anyway, and inform those of us at the digiface that we have not met our ‘targets’. So, we meet out targets by publishing in backyard journals, passing students who should have been failed, and unleashing on society incompetents who then fail, go into government, fail big time, and then get massively rewarded for doing so.

Sometimes this just costs money, but like the Esidimeni debacle which cost 150+ lives, the melt-down of our economy and disaster occurs at every level.

Metrics are the neoliberal equivalent of measuring imagined value that discriminates on the basis of immediacy. Metrics rarely recognise the latent longevity of intrinsic value such as in the Humanities. They are indicative of highly competitive societies where information and knowledge have a rapid half-life, in which national policy occurs and is hurriedly and often opportunistically implemented between national elections.

Articles might languish for years un-valorised before their intrinsic value is recognised by subsequent generations of scholars who find significance in older work. Similarly, for historians in any discipline, intrinsic value never decays, but actually increases over time. Metrics, which are simply marketing and currency devices, are causing academics to engage in short-term thinking, doing fast-‘n-dirty publishing, rather than doing longer-term blue-sky research from which really applicable scientific and social benefit might eventually occur, e.g., DNA sequencing, electric cars, vaccination, the atomic bomb (regrettably).

Let’s get back to basics. Metrics are not going to save the planet. Science and scientists – if allowed to do deep science – will be the key, but only if the policy makers are actually listening.

On the December 2017 column, Of Small Journals and Incentives, Mike Chapman commented: ‘UKZN permits the retired individual researcher to take up to 50% as taxable income. UFS permits the retired or any researcher to take 100% as taxable income (R40 000 per article as distinct from UKZN’s R18 000). UCT and Rhodes offer no incentive. As a retired researcher whose pension decreases in value each year, I am conscious… that financial difficulties do not enhance research creativity or risk-taking, qualities necessary to innovative as opposed to the run of the mill output that is a consequence of PU bean-counting policies.’

This response is relevant, especially as NRF - rated researchers unexpectedly found themselves grant deprived as from 2019. This was a key mechanism to retaining intellectual contribution, especially of those mandatorily retired from formal employment. My revised conclusion is that retired researchers should thus qualify for publication income as Chapman suggests. Such folks are publishing for the right reasons.

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


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