Excellence by Nonsense: The Competition for Publications in Modern Science

Mathias Binswanger

Most scientific publications are utterly redundant, mere quantitative 'productivity'.

—Gerhard Fröhlich

Abstract In this chapter, Binswanger (a critic of the current scientific process) explains how artificially staged competitions affect science and how they result in nonsense. An economist himself, Binswanger provides examples from his field and shows how impact factors and publication pressure reduce the quality of scientific publications. Some might know his work and arguments from his book 'Sinnlose Wettbewerbe'.

In Search of Excellence

Since the Age of Enlightenment, science has mostly taken place at universities and their respective institutes, where for a long time the ideal of uniting research and teaching was upheld. Since their re-establishment by Humboldt in 1810, German universities have been, also in terms of academic work, largely independent and the principle of academic freedom was applied.

The government merely determined that amount of money that was paid to universities and set the legal framework for science and teaching. In terms of research, the government did not impose specific research policies-with the exception of some inglorious episodes (e.g. the Nazi regime). Universities were trusted to know best what kind of research they were doing.

Generally, it was accepted not to tell a country's best academics what they should be interested in and what research they should be doing (Schatz 2001; Kohler 2007). Therefore, the academic practice of professors and other scientists was hardly documented and assessed systematically, as it was assumed that academics would strive for excellence without having to be forced to do so.

Sometimes this was right and sometimes it was wrong. Huge differences in quality between individual scientists were the result. Scientific geniuses and lame ducks jointly populated universities, whereby even during the scientists' lifetimes it was not always discernible who was the lame duck and who the genius.

The extraordinary is the rare result of average science and only broad quality, growing out from mediocrity, brings the great achievement at the end says Jürgen Mittelstrass, philosopher of science (2007). Still in 1945, the then president of Harvard University wrote in a letter addressed to the New York Times (August, 13th, 1945): There is only one method to guarantee progress in science. One has to find geniuses, support them and let them carry out their work independently.

Meanwhile, the government has given up its reservations towards universities and formerly proud bastions of independent thinking have turned into servants of governmental programs and initiatives. Lenin's doctrine applies once again: trust is good, control is better.

To ensure the efficient use of scarce funds, the government forces universities and professors, together with their academic staff, to permanently take part in artificially staged competitions. This is happening on two fronts: universities have to prove themselves by competing, both in terms of education and scientific research, in order to stay ahead in the rankings. Yet how did this development occur? Why did successful and independent universities forget about their noble purpose of increasing knowledge and instead degenerated into ''publication factories'' and ''project mills'' which are only interested in their rankings?

To understand this, we have to take a closer look at the development of universities since the 1960s. Until then, people with a tertiary education made up a relatively small fraction of the population. Universities were relatively elitist institutions which remained out of reach for the majority of working class kids. Since the 1960s however, increasing access to tertiary education occurred, for which the term 'mass higher education' (Trow 1997) was coined.

From 1950, first-year student rates increased from an average of 5 % in the industrialized countries to up to 50 % at the beginning of the 21st century (Switzerland, with its 20 %, is an exception). Universities and politics, however, were not prepared to deal with this enormous increase. It was believed to be possible to carry on with 1,000 students in the same way as has been done with 50 students, by just increasing the number of universities and professors and by putting more money into administration.

The mass education at universities made a farce of Humboldt's old idea of unity of research and education. This had consequences for both education and research. There were more and more students and also more and more researchers who were employed at universities (and later on at universities of applied sciences), but most of them no longer had any time for research. In Germany, the number of students also grew disproportionately faster than the number of professors due to the very generous government support of students through BAFÖG (Federal Education and Trainings Assistance Act). Therefore, one professor had to supervise more and more students and postgraduates and there was no more time to seriously deal with them.

Dissertations became mass products, the majority of which added little or nothing to scientific advancement. An environment emerged that was neither stimulating for professors, nor for their assistants and doctoral students, which logically led to increasing mediocrity. German universities in particular have often been criticized along the following lines: studies last too long, the dropout rates are too high, the curricula are obsolete, and research performance is only average and rarely of value and relevance for industrial innovations.

A second phenomenon which did a lot of harm to the European universities, was the lasting glorification of the American higher education system. Many politicians, but also scientists themselves, see this system as a permanent source of excellence and success without—as US scientist Trow (1997) writes—getting the general picture of the American higher education system. Attention is directed exclusively at Harvard, Princeton, Yale, MIT, and other Ivy-League universities, which make up only a small percentage of the university landscape in the US. In this euphoria, it is intentionally overlooked that the majority of colleges and universities displays an intellectually modest standard and hardly contributes to academic progress. Much of what we celebrate as 'globalization' and 'adjustment to international standards' is in reality the adjustment to US-American provincialism (Fröhlich 2006).

In Europe, the idea became fashionable that imitating top US universities would magically create a new academic elite. Like small boys, all universities wanted to be the greatest, and politics started propagating sponsorship of Ivy-League universities, elite institutions, and elite scientists. Germany started an Excellence Initiative in order to boost its international competitiveness. Switzerland aimed to be one of the top 5 countries for innovation by supporting excellence, and the European Union, with the so-called Lisbon-strategy of 2000, hoped to turn the EU into the most dynamic knowledge-based economy by 2010.

Cutting-edge universities, top-institutes, and research clusters shot up everywhere, and everyone wanted to be even more excellent than their already-excellent competitors. Amongst this childish race for excellence, it was overlooked that not all can be more excellent than the rest. This fallacy of composition applies here as well. Instead, the term 'excellence' became a meaningless catchword. Philosopher Mittelstrass (2007) writes:

Until now, no one took offence at the labeling of excellent cuisine, excellent performance, excellent academics or excellent scientists. […] In the case of science this changed since science policy has occupied this term and talks about excellent research, excellent research

establishments, clusters of excellence and Excellence Initiatives, in endless and almost unbearable repetitions.

Yet how do we actually know what excellence is and where it is worthwhile to foster a scientific elite? In reality, no one actually knows, least of all the politicians who enthusiastically launch such excellence initiatives. This is where the idea of artificially staged competition comes in. It is assumed that these competitions will automatically make the best rise to the top—without the need to care about neither content nor purpose of research. We may call this 'contest illusion'. This contest illusion was applied to science in England for the first time under the Thatcher government in the 1980s. Afterwards it was quickly copied in other countries. The Thatcher government, inspired by its belief in markets and competition, would have loved to privatize all institutions engaged in academic activities and to let markets decide which kind of science was needed, and which was not. However, this proved to be impossible. Basic research constitutes, for the most part, a common good which cannot be sold for profit at a market. Privatization would therefore completely wipe out basic research. Thus, artificially staged competitions were created, which were then termed markets (internal markets, pseudo-markets), even though this was false labeling.

Connected to the euphoria about markets and competition, there was also a deep mistrust towards independent research taking place within ''ivory towers'', the purpose of which politicians often do not understand. What does the search for knowledge bring apart from high costs? On these grounds, the former British minister of education Charles Clarke characterized ''the medieval search for truth'' as obsolete and unnecessary.[1] Modern universities should produce applicable knowledge, which can be transformed into growth of the gross domestic product, and additionally make it more sustainable. Universities should think ''entrepreneurial'' and adjust to economic needs (see Maasen and Weingart 2008). For this reason, governments in many countries, particularly in the EU, started to organize gigantic research programs. Instead of making research funds directly available to universities, they are now in competition with each other, so that only the ''best'' get a chance. This should ensure that above all practice-oriented and applicable knowledge is created and government funds are not wasted (e.g. for ''unnecessary'' basic research). Hence universities are forced to construct illusionary worlds of utility and pretend that all research serves an immediate purpose (Körner 2007).

How can you impress the research commissions responsible for the distribution of funds? This is mainly achieved by increasing measurable output such as publications, projects funded by third-party funds, and networks with other institutes and universities. In this way, ''excellence'' is demonstrated, in turn leading to easier access to further government research funds. Competitiveness has therefore become a priority for universities and their main goal is to perform as highly as possible in measurable indicators which play an important role in these artificially staged competitions. The underlying belief is that our knowledge increases proportionally to the amount of scientific projects, publications, and intensity of networking between research institutions, which in turn is supposed to lead to more progress and wealth. This naïve ton ideology is widespread among politicians and bureaucrats.

The modern university is only marginally concerned with gaining knowledge, even though the public from time to time is assured that this is still the major goal. Today's universities are, on the one hand, fundraising institutions, determined to receive as many research funds as possible. On the other hand, they are publication factories, trying to maximize their publication output. Hence, the ideal professor is a mixture of fundraiser, project manager, and mass publisher (either directly as author, or as co-author in publications written by employees of the institution), whose main concern is measurable contribution to scientific excellence, rather than increasing our knowledge. Moreover, in order to make professors deliver their contribution to excellence, faculty managers have been recruited for each department in addition to traditional deans. Nowadays, the principal is sort of a CEO who is supposed to implement new strategies for achieving more and more excellence. Research becomes a means in the battle for ''market shares'' of universities and research institutions (Münch 2009).

Universities which on the surface expose themselves as great temples of scientific excellence, are forced to participate in projectand publication-olympics, where instead of medals, winners are rewarded with the elite or excellence status, exemption from teaching duties, and sometimes also with higher salaries. This is how it goes, even though many of the projects and publications do not have the slightest importance for the rest of the population outside the academic system.

Two artificially staged competitions in particular incentivize the production of nonsense: the competition for the highest amount of publications and the competition for the highest amount of research funding. The resulting indicators for publications and third-party funds play a central role in today's research rankings, such as, for example the German CHE Research Ranking of German universities (see Berghoff et al. 2009).

The competition for the highest amount of publications will be analyzed below in more detail. On the basis of the competition for publications, it can be nicely demonstrated how perverse incentives emerge and what consequences this entails not only for research, but also generally for society and the economy.

  • [1] BBC News. Clarke questions study as 'adornment': news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/ education/3014423.stm
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