The Facebook-ization of academic reputation?

Guest blog post by Alex Rushforth

The Facebook-ization of academic reputation? ResearchGate, Academia.edu 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 Academia.edu: 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 Academia.edu 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.

References

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.

 

 

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Why do neoliberal universities play the numbers game?

Performance measurement has brought on a crisis in academia. At least, that’s what Roger Burrows (Goldsmiths, University of London) claims in a recent article for The Sociological Review. According to Burrows, academics are at great risk of becoming overwhelmed by a ‘deep, affective, somatic crisis’. This crisis is brought on by the ‘cultural flattening of market economic imperatives’ that fires up increasingly convoluted systems of measure. Burrows places this emergence of quantified control in academia within the broader context of neoliberalism. Though this has been argued before, Burrows gives the discussion a theoretical twist. He does so by drawing on Gane’s (2012) analysis of Foucault’s (1978-1979) lectures on the relation between market and state under neoliberalism. According to Foucault, neoliberal states can only guarantee the freedom of markets when they apply the same ‘market logic’ on themselves. In this view, the standard depiction of neoliberalism as passive statecraft is not correct. This type of management is not ‘laissez-faire’, but actively stimulates competition and privatization strategies.

In the UK, Burrows contends, the simulation of neoliberal markets in academia has largely been channelled through the introduction of audit and of performance measures. He argues that these control mechanisms become autonomous entities that are increasingly used outside the original context of evaluations, and get a much more active role in shaping the everyday work of academics. According to Burrows, neoliberal universities provide fertile ground for a “co-construction of statistical metrics and social practices within the academy.” Among other things, this leads to a reification of individual performance measures such as the H-index. Burrows:

“[I]t is not the conceptualization, reliability, validity or any other set of methodological concerns that really matter. The index has become reified; (…) a number that has become a rhetorical device with which the neoliberal academy has come to enact ‘academic value’.” (p. 361)

Interestingly, Burrow’s line of reasoning can in some respects itself be seen as a resultant of a broader neoliberal context. Neoliberal policies applaud personal autonomy and the individual’s responsibility for one’s own well-being and professional success. Burrows directly addresses fellow-academics (‘we need to obtain critical distance’; ‘we need to understand ourselves as academics’; ‘why do we feel the way we do?’) and concludes that we are all implicated in the ‘autonomization of metric assemblages’ in the academy. Arguably, it is exactly this neoliberal political climate that justifies Burrows’ focus on individual academics’ affective states. With it comes a delegation of responsibility to the level of the individual researchers. It is our own choice if we comply with the metricization of academia. It is our own choice if we decide to work long hours, spend our weekends writing grant proposals and articles and grading students’ exams. According to Gill (2010), academics tend to justify working so hard because they possess a passionate drive for self-expression and pleasure in intellectual work. Paradoxically, Gill argues, it is this drive that feeds a whole range of disciplinary mechanisms and that lets academics internalize a neoliberal subjectivity. We play ‘the numbers game’, as Burrows calls it, because of “a deep love for the ‘myth’ of what we thought being an intellectual would be like.” (p. 15)

Though Burrows raises concerns that are shared by many academics, it is unfortunate that he does not substantiate his claims with empirical data. Apart from own experience and anecdotal evidence, how do we know that today’s researchers experience the metricization of academia as a ‘deep, affective somatic crisis’? Does it apply to all researchers, is it the same everywhere, and does it hold for all disciplines? These are empirical questions that Burrows does not answer. That said, there is a great need for the types of analyses Burrows and Gill provide, analyses that assess, situate and historicize academic audit cultures. It is not a coincidence that Burrows’ polemic piece emerges from the field of sociology. The social sciences and humanities are increasingly confronted with what Burrows calls the ‘rethoric of accountability’. It has become a commonplace to argue that they, too, should be held accountable for the taxpayers’ money that is being spent on them. These disciplines, too, should be made auditable by way of standardized, transparent performance measures. I agree with Burrows that this rethoric should be problematized. In large parts of these fields it is not at all clear how performance should be ‘measured’ in the first place, for example because of differences in publication cultures within these fields and as compared to the natural sciences. And it is precisely because the discussion is ongoing that we are allowed a clear view of the performative effects of a very specific and increasingly dominant evaluation culture that is not modelled by and on these disciplines. What are the consequences? And are there more constructive alternatives?

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