Universities Churn Out Junk, And Get Paid For It

Steven Pearlstein posted a call to arms in the Washington Post, calling on universities to aggressively cut costs through four strategies: 1) cutting administrative costs, 2) operating year round, 3) teaching more and researching less, and 4) reducing the costs of general education courses through technology.

As a PhD student who dropped out this year, all I can say: yes, one-thousand fold.

I realize that my experience is at two top institutions (Stanford and Harvard) that are in their own unique stratosphere of the academic world. As Daniel Drezner notes in a partial criticism of Pearlstein, there is an incredible diversity of university institutions in the United States, so any advice has to be directed more specifically to be meaningful. So let's focus just on top research universities.

My undergraduate thesis was on the history of universities in the 1950s and 1960s, and specifically the growth of computer science departments and their fight to gain legitimacy against other departments. So I have been looking at these issues for several years now.

The first thing to understand about the modern research university is just how much sheer waste there really is. Across the board. In every department and program. Throughout the administration. Particularly in research. Pearlstein mentions this, but it bears repeating: there is so much junk research being conducted, it's almost unreal. There are so many junk staff members, it's doubly unreal. There is so much administrative overhead, it's triply unreal.

Universities have gotten stuck in quantification hell, where productivity numbers are driven by number (not quality!) of publications and number of staff hired (not efficiency!). If an office is important on campus, say, for political reasons, then that office has to be given more headcount – regardless of the actual need – simply for appearance's sake. The answer is never to prioritize, but simply to say yes to every even slightly feasible request.

Here's something to think about: despite incredible productivity growth for decades from information technology and other forces, universities have been almost completely immune to layoffs, either faculty or staff. In fact, quite the opposite: staff numbers have been growing at a rapid clip at almost all top universities. It's incredible, really, that they have gotten on for so long as they have, with the partial exception of the 2008 financial crisis at some universities.

Yet, focusing on the staff really misses the point: the actual research product of universities is declining rapidly. Pearlstein notes that 98% of humanities research articles are never cited by another researcher. 98%! It's not the average article that is failing to get read or noticed, but practically every single one. The same is true in the biological sciences, where research is constantly churned out for grant-making reasons.

I was conducting research at Harvard at the same time I was writing for TechCrunch. I left Harvard and academia mostly because no one actually gives a damn about a single thing you publish in a field. As one university press representative noted while I was there, a research monograph that sells 250 copies is considered a success. At TC, I would get that many readers in the first three minutes of an article being published. And yet, tenure favors the least-read work of a researcher over the most influential.

Why does bad research get published? Because no one has time to read it. It's the dirty little secret that professors rarely bring up unless you really press them on it. Everyone skims heavily. Twenty-five page papers are consumed in 45 seconds, as if a meaningful judgment can be made about quality in such a short period of time.

The system continues because no one wants to criticize bad work, lest others go after your own work. Academics realize that most work is bad anyway, and everything will eventually be fine since no one will ultimately question it.

You have to love circular logic.

The hope of so many young academics is that if they can just churn out enough papers, then maybe no one notice that their work is just gibberish. It's entirely feasible as well, since hiring committees rarely actually substantively read a candidate's work (with so much work to be done, how can anyone be expected to read 3-5 papers per candidate?).

So a 300 page dissertation is summarized in a 40 page job paper, which is summarized by the candidate in 3-5 pages, and further summarized in a 2-page recommendation letter from a faculty advisor, who gets a phone call from the committee to describe someone in five minutes. So much of the system is just going through the motions.

The sad part is that no one – and I truly mean no one – has an incentive to change this system. No one can slow down their publications and focus on quality, risking their entire career by being contrarian on quantification. PhD students and researchers aren't stupid. They know that numbers drive the game.

One Harvard professor - more realistic than most - even gave students an 18-year plan for their research career, providing an exact timeline when articles and books need to be published in order to get an academic job and eventually tenure.

Frankly, I see the same challenges in journalism: the best work is hard, but few people realize the cost or how to cultivate it. With so little time in the modern university, the quality just gets shirked in the rush for that next publication.

There is a counterintuitive way for universities to save money: fight the quantification. Reduce the focus on constant publishing, and favor much more substantive engagement with a limited set of activities. Prioritize, particularly around staffing, but prioritize on the mission of the offices.

That cultural change has to come from funding bodies like NSF and NIH as much as from university leadership. But it has to come, otherwise we may be witnessing the demise of one of the absolutely most important institutions in our civil society.

Image by JanetandPhil used under Creative Commons

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