UKZN Voices | Publication and Debate
Publication and Debate
Publication when I was a student in the late 1960s and early 1970s was a big deal. Once accepted, an article could stack for five years before seeing the light of day. Only the top scholars published. The rest just taught. Published articles drew vigorous peer critique and the objective was to impact the discipline, to develop theory and offer explanation. Now, publishing is primarily about meeting performance assessment, auditing requirements and bottom lines.
Small self-published journals opened the methodological door a bit and encouraged diversity and debate during the 1980s. They invited controversy – that is, observations on various fields that could not fit into conventional academic writing formats.
Nowadays, publishing has become a treadmill. Everyone is expected to do it: professors, lecturers, university executives and even students. Well and good, except that much publishing is just rubbish – a niche so beguilingly exploited by the so-called predatory online publishers. Journals now are expected by many authors simply to offer the equivalent of product displays, and few have the time, inclination, or are rewarded, for engaging in debate, for writing book reviews or commentaries any more, there being no institutional rewards for this kind of work. Guest editors sometimes demand that their skimpy editorials be accorded full research status. Tick the box for the performance management (PM) template, massage your dean’s Excel spreadsheet and bank the proceeds of the DHET subsidy, if that’s what your institution allows you to do. Move on to the next article lest you forfeit your annual notch increase.
When writing to editors, ask whether the journal is ‘DHET accredited’, but not what its impact is. Inquire on submission if your article can appear in the next number, and feign astonishment when told that the review process can take up to six months plus, and publication another 18 months as the accepted article needs to get into the production queue. Complain that the editor is impeding your career, and then refuse to review articles for the journal or any others. After all, you are not getting paid to waste your time being collegiate or being a peer. That’s mug’s work. Yet, the system is sustained by unpaid editors and voluntary editorial board members and peer reviewers, among whom are the senior academics who have built the discipline globally.
Sadly, universities have become factories and academics incorporated into the publication conveyer belt. Universities are ranked, researchers are rated and sometimes roughed up by managerialism. We are turned into cogs who must meet pre-set outputs, and be counselled by line managers who may have themselves failed to meet their targets, and who may be lower ranked, with less publications and fewer degrees.
Just think, physicists like Newton, Einstein and Higgs would have failed in the current academic environment. They just did not publish enough. But they changed the way we think about the world, from physics through the humanities. And, their theories have endured. The first two scientists were not even employed at universities when they made their breakthroughs. Higgs – of the God particle – observed that he had become an embarrassment to his university. Nowadays, it is the academic auditors who measure our work, not so much our peers any more. Why do academics not get to measure the performance of auditors, administrators, deans and managers?
Had these physicists not done their thing, we’d still be in the dark ages, insisting that the sun revolves around the earth. Nevertheless, too many politicians disbelieve the climate change academics, and many presidents propagated all kinds of bizarre remedies for COVID-19, and in South Africa some claimed that Homo Naledi was just another racist plot. Back to the Past is the movie that needs to be reprised under these circumstances. Academics are supposed to think, break with dominant discourses or rewrite the taken-for-granted. Thankfully, unlike the earlier HIV/AIDS denialist debacle, South Africa did unambiguously restore its faith in science in addressing the current pandemic.
We need to restore the motivation of doing research to improve our knowledge not just to fish for monetary rewards and PM entries.
Academics should be allowed to briefly go off the positivistic rails and engage in controversy, debate and dissent, but respectfully so. Shouting down other arguments achieves nothing, it’s a kind of bullying. The 1980s was replete with sophisticated dialectical debate about how to plan the future of our society. We need to learn from that decade.
Publication should certainly be a big deal – but for the right reasons.
Keyan Tomaselli’s new book Contemporary Campus Life: Transformation, Managerialism and Academentia (HSRC Press, BestRed imprint, 2021) is based on his UKZNdaba Griot columns that were published between 2010 and 2019. Tomaselli – a UKZN Emeritus Professor and Fellow – is currently based in the Dean’s Office, Faculty of Humanities, University of Johannesburg.