Don't mention the money

August 18, 2011

Doreen Tomelty, our Deputy Director of Advanced Technological Retrieval Systems (formerly Assistant Librarian), has warmly welcomed the interview with a journal publishers' spokesman published in last week's Times Higher Education.

She told our reporter Keith Ponting (30) that the spokesman, Graham Taylor, director of educational, academic and professional publishing at the Publishers Association, had first captured her attention with his account of the extraordinary difficulties involved in moving towards open-access journal publishing. Until she read his words, she had entertained "the simplistic view" that journal publishers were doing everything in their power to resist a move that would damage the fat profits they gleaned from constantly introducing above-inflation price rises.

But as soon as she learned from Mr Taylor that any such move took a great deal of time because "if you have to re-engineer the plane while you are still flying it, you are bound to have to go through a period of transition", she realised that she had been quite unfair.

However, what really moved her was Mr Taylor's frank response when asked if journal publishers ever reflected on the millions of pounds' worth of academics' time that went into peer review. He responded that paying academics for this service ran the risk of "monetising" the system and could taint the "essentially altruistic motives" that currently motivated reviewers.

This was altogether too much for Ms Tomelty, who admitted that she had broken down and wept real tears upon discovering that journal publishers had such a deep understanding of the manner in which "monetising" the dissemination of academic knowledge might have corrupting effects. "It was", said Ms Tomelty, through what appeared to our reporter to be clenched teeth, "a bleeding revelation."

Trust me, i'm a don

"A very dangerous precedent." That was the response of Nancy Harbinger, our Deputy Head of Student Experience, to a conference speech by Kyra Gaunt-Palmer, associate professor of anthropology at the City University of New York, in which she urged academics to commit themselves to a truly honest relationship with their students.

Professor Gaunt-Palmer gave as an example of this new truth-telling her own confession to a class that in a previous seminar she had "pretended to know where we were when I didn't know where we were at all".

Ms Harbinger said she believed that this sort of confession was a violation of the implicit social contract between students and academic staff that rested wholly on the latter's inability to ever be mistaken.

Over the years, Ms Harbinger pointed out, academics had expended a great deal of effort in ensuring that this contract was honoured. When seriously questioned by any student about the accuracy of one of their statements, they'd learned to say that they were referring to new research that wasn't currently available to students, or pretended to mishear the question, or proceeded to draw an irrelevant conceptual distinction, or announced that the question had so many complex ramifications that it needed to be held over until the following term.

To suggest that all these strategies for maintaining the staff-student contract should now be replaced with something as "ambiguous as honesty" was, said Ms Harbinger, "tantamount to vandalism" and might represent the sort of breakdown of authority that was a factor in the recent explosion of urban looting.

Thought for the Week

(contributed by Jennifer Doubleday, Head of Personal Development)

The Botox Clinic will open again in the Personal Development suite from the beginning of next term. Please note that this service is also available for junior members of staff who would like to have their gravitas increased by the surgical addition of extra wrinkles.

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