The Facebook-ization of academic reputation?

Guest blog post by Alex Rushforth

The Facebook-ization of academic reputation? ResearchGate, and Everyday neoliberalism

How do we explain the endurance of neoliberal modes of government following the 2008 financial crisis, which could surely have been its death-knoll? This is the question of a long, brilliant, book by historian of science and economics Philip Mirowski, called ‘Never let a serious crisis go to waste’. Mirowski states that explanations of the crisis to date have accounted for only part of the answer. Part of the persistence of neo-liberal ideals of personhood and markets comes not just directly from ‘the government’ or particular policies, but is a result of very mundane practices and technologies which surround us in our everyday lives.

I think this book can tell us a lot about new ways in which our lives as academics are increasingly being governed. Consider web platforms like ResearchGate and following Mirowski, these academic professional networking sites might be understood as technologies of ‘everyday neoliberalism’. These websites share a number of resemblances with social networking sites like Facebook – which Mirowski takes as an exemplar par excellence of this phenomenon. He argues Facebook teaches its users to become ‘entrepreneurs of themselves’, by fragmenting the self and reducing it to something transient (ideals emanating from the writings of Hayek and Friedman), to be actively and promiscuously re-drawn out of various click-enabled associations (accumulated in indicators like numbers of ‘likes’, ‘friends’, comments) (Mirowski, 2013, 92).

Let us briefly consider what kind of academic and ResearchGate encourages and teaches us to become. Part of the seductiveness of these technologies for academics, I suspect, is that we already compete within reputational work organisations (c.f. Whitley, 2000), where self-promotion has always been part-and-parcel of producing new knowledge. However, such platforms also intensify and reinforce dominant ideas and practices for evaluating research and researchers, which – with the help of Mirowski’s text – appear to be premised on neoliberal doctrines. Certainly the websites build on the idea that the individual (as author) is the central locus of knowledge production. Yet what is distinctly neoliberal perhaps is how the individual – through the architecture and design of the websites – experiences their field of knowledge production as a ‘marketplace of ideas’ (on the neo-liberal roots of this idea, see Mirowski, 2011).

This is achieved through ‘dashboards’ that display a smorgasbord of numerical indicators. When you upload your work, the interface generates the Impact Factor of journals you have published in and various other algorithmically-generated scores (ResearchGate score anyone?). There are also social networking elements like ‘contacts’, enabling you to follow and be followed by other users of the platform (your ‘peers’). This in turn produces a count of how well ‘networked’ you are. In short, checking one’s scores, contacts, downloads, views, and so on is supposed to give an impression of an individual user’s market standing, especially as one can compare these with scores of other users. Regular email notifications provide reminders to continue internalizing these demands and to report back regularly to the system. These scores and notices are not final judgments but a record of accomplishments so far, motivating the user to carry on with the determination to do better. Given the aura of ‘objectivity’ and ‘market knows best’ mantra these indicators present to us, any ‘failings’ are the responsibility of the individual. Felt anger is to be turned back inward on the self, rather than outwards on the social practices and ideas through which such ‘truths’ are constituted. A marketplace of ideas indeed.

Like Facebook, what these academic professional networking sites do seems largely unremarkable and uncontroversial, forming part of background infrastructures which simply nestle into our everyday research practices. One of their fascinating features is to promulgate a mode of power that is not directed to us ‘from above’ – no manager or formal audit exercise is coercing researchers into signing-up. We are able to join and leave of our own volition (many academics don’t even have accounts). Yet these websites should be understood as component parts of a wider ‘assemblage’ of metrics and evaluation techniques with which academics currently juggle, which in turn generate certain kinds of tyrannies (see Burrows, 2012).

Mirowski’s book provides a compelling set of provocations for digital scholars, sociologists of science, science studies, higher education scholars and others to work with. Many studies have been produced documenting reforms to the university which have bared various hallmarks of neoliberal political philosophical doctrines (think audits, university rankings, temporary labour contracts, competitive funding schemes and the like). Yet these latter techniques may only be the tip of the iceberg: Mirowski has given us cause to think more imaginatively about how ‘everyday’ or ‘folk’ neoliberal ideas and practices become embedded in our academic lives through quite mundane infrastructures, the effects of which we have barely begun to recognise, let alone understand.


Burrows, R. 2012. Living with the h-index? Metric assemblages in the contemporary academy. Sociological Review, 60, 355-372.

Mirowski, P. 2011. Science-mart : privatizing American science, Cambridge, Mass. ; London, Harvard University Press.

Mirowski, P. 2013. Never let a serious crisis go to waste : how neoliberalism survived the financial meltdown, New York, Verso.

Whitley, R. 2000. The intellectual and social organization of the sciences, Oxford England ; New York, Oxford University Press.



In Search of Excellence? Debating the Merits of Introducing an Elite Dutch University Model

Report by Alex Rushforth

Should the Netherlands strive for excellence in its university systems? Will maintaining quality suffice? This was the topic of a recent panel debate at the WTMC annual meeting on 21 November 2014 in De Balie, Amsterdam. Organised and chaired by Willem Halffman, the session focused on an article published by Barend Van Der Meulen in the national newspaper De Volkskrant, which advocated the need to produce two excellent universities which excel on internationally published rankings, thereby creating a new top-tier in the Dutch higher education system.

Both van der Meulen and Halffman presented their views, with an opposing position also coming from Sally Wyatt. Completing the panel, CWTS’s very own Paul Wouters provided results from recent empirical work about rankings.

Barend van der Meulen’s call for an elite university stemmed from the fact Dutch universities perennially sit outside of the top-50 in Shanghai and Times Higher Education rankings. For him the message is clear: the Netherlands is repeatedly failing to enhance its reputation as an elite player among global universities, a position which ought to cause concern. Van der Meulen stated that his call for an elite university model is part of a need to create an expanded repertoire of what universities are and what they should do in the Netherlands. The pursuit of rankings through this vehicle is therefore tightly coupled with a rejection of the status quo. Rankings are a social technology which ought to be harnessed for quality improvement and as tools through which to promote democratic participation by equipping students and policymakers with tools to make judgments and exert some influence over universities. Alternative modes of evaluation like peer review provide closed systems in which only other academics can make judgments, leaving university activities unaccountable to external modes of evaluation. This ‘ivory tower’ situation reminiscent of the 1980s is an image Van Der Meulen wishes to escape from, as ultimately it damages credibility and legitimacy of universities. The reliance on public money for research and education makes the moral case for university improvement and accountability particularly pressing in the Netherlands. For Van Der Meulen, the ‘good enough’ university (see Wyatt’s argument below) is not enough, given that excellence is imposing itself as a viable and increasingly important alternative.

First to oppose the motion in favour of elite universities was Willem Hallfman, whose talk built on a reply co-authored with Roland Bal, also in De Volkskrant. In the talk Halffman questioned the very foundations of the idea that ‘excellence’ ought to be pursued. Drawing unflattering comparisons between the research budget of Harvard University and that of the entire Netherlands, it was argued that competing within a global superleague would require a radical expansion of existing research budgets and wage structures across the Dutch university system, which he felt unrealistic and unreasonable against a backdrop of crisis in public finances. As well as reproducing national elites, Halffman also questioned the desirability of ranking systems which promote academic stars and the consequences this brings to institutions of science in general and Dutch universities in particular. Football-style league tables provide poor models on which to rate universities, as in contrast with sport where a winner-takes-all logic is central, for universities embodying a broad repertoire of societal functions, it is not clear what ‘winning’ means and how this would be made visible and commensurable through performance indicators.

Sally Wyatt recounted her personal experiences of the shock she encountered when studying and working in British universities in the 1980s, having grown-up in Canada within a period of prosperity and social mobility. These experiences fired a series of warning shots not to go down a road of pursuing excellence. When a move to the Netherlands came about in 1999, it promised her an oasis away from the turmoil the British university system had faced as a result of Thatcherite policy reforms. With the emergence of the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) and its ranking logic comes also a rise in managerial positions and policies, decline in working conditions, and a widening gender gap. Gone also was a latent class system engrained in the culture of universities, with dominant elite institutions the site of social stratification reproduced across generations, which rankings merely encourage and reinforce. Despite erosion of certain positive attributes in universities since her arrival in the Netherlands, Wyatt argued that the Dutch system still preserves enough of a ‘level-playing field’ in terms of funding allocation to merit fierce resistance to any introduction of an elite university model. For Wyatt sometimes it is better to promote the ‘good enough’ than to chase an imperialist and elitist vision of ‘excellence’.

Drawing on work on university and hospital rankings carried-out with Sarah De Rijcke (CWTS), Iris Wallenburg and Roland Bal (Erasmus MC, Rotterdam), Paul Wouters’ talk advocated the need for a more fine-grained STS investigations into the kinds of work that goes into rankings, who is doing it, and in what situations. What is at stake in studying rankings then is not simply the critique of this or that tool, but a more pervasive (and sometimes invisible) logic/set of practices encountered across public organisations like universities and hospitals. Wouters advocated a move towards combining audit society critiques (which tend to be top-down) with STS insights into how ranking is practiced across various organisational levels in universities. This would provide a more promising platform through which to inform debates of the kind playing-out over the desirability of the elite university.

So the contrast between positions was stark. Are rankings – these seemingly ubiquitous ordering mechanisms of contemporary social life – something the Netherlands can afford to back away from in governing its universities? If they are being pursued anyway, shouldn’t policy intervene and assist a more systematic pursuit up the rankings which would enable more pronounced successes? Or is it necessary to oppose the very notion that the Netherlands needs to excel in a ‘globally competitive’ race, particularly given the seeming arbitrariness of many of the metrics according to which prestige gets attributed via ranking mechanisms? Despite polarization on what is to be done, potential for extending STS’s conceptual and empirical apparatus to mediate these discussions seemed to strike a chord among panelists and the audience alike. No doubt this stimulating debate touches on a set of issues that will not be going away quickly, and is one on which the WTMC community is surely well placed to intervene.

Collaboration and competition in research – Special Issue

Hot off the press: a special issue of Higher Education Policy, co-edited by Peter van den Besselaar (Free University, Amsterdam), Sven Hemlin (University of Gothenborg, Sweden) and our colleague Inge van der Weijden (CWTS, Leiden University). The special issue is an outcome of one of the tracks at the 2010 EASST (European Association for the Study of Science and Technology) conference in Trento, Italy. All papers zoom in on competition and collaboration, two increasingly dominant components of research both within and between organizations, and often demanded simultaneously. What is the relation between the two, and what are their effects on scientific quality and on higher education?

This interview with Van den Besselaar for Inside Higher Ed zooms in on one of the articles in the special issue. To what extent is success in academic careers determined by cultural, social and intellectual capital, and organisational and contextual factors? Van Balen, Van Arensbergen, Van der Weijden and Van den Besselaar performed a literature study, held interviews, and compared the careers of pairs of similar researchers that were considered talented in their early career and either stayed in or left academia. Their findings suggest that there is not one decisive factor that determines which talented researchers continue or discontinue their academic careers. Some factors were found to be important (e.g. social capital), whereas others were not (cultural and intellectual capital). Interestingly, Van Balen et al. did not find a “systematic relationship between the career success and the academic performance of highly talented scholars, measured as the number of publications and citations.” (p. 330-331)

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