How the RAE is smothering 'big idea' books

May 25, 2007

Tomorrow's Richard Dawkinses are being stifled by the stampede to publish in journals, says Richard Baggaley

Scholarship cannot be measured by numbers. And yet the replacement for the research assessment exercise, with its emphasis on "bibliometrics", seems to be taking us farther down that path. This has already had a profound effect on the way people work and on what they publish. The very nature of the scholarly enterprise is being changed.

This change manifests itself differently according to broad disciplinary area. In the natural sciences and "hard" social sciences (particularly economics), the journal article is the all-important unit of currency. There is intense individual and team pressure to publish articles - to the exclusion of other means of communication. Writing books is especially strongly discouraged. I believe that this matters because it is indicative of a trend towards short-termism and narrowness of focus in British academe - a phenomenon with implications way beyond the concerns of publishers.

Books and journals have long been the accepted means of communicating scholarly work and have continued to be so despite the advent of television, radio and the web. To now squeeze books out of scholarly communication in these scientific subject areas is a perverse thing to do.

Even in the electronic age, books work at a number of levels. Be they challenging scholarly works, field-defining textbooks or books for the general public, all can have enduring and truly international influence (with successful ones being translated into many languages). A book allows the scholar to look at the bigger picture, to expand an argument and put it into context. Disciplines are defined by their books, and the next generation of scholars will learn from them. Books are reviewed, cited and debated. The average academic book is likely to reach a bigger readership than the average journal article. Every book must make commercial sense for the publisher - there is no institutional subscription model to support it, so each one is tested in the economic marketplace as well as the marketplace for ideas.

There are understandable reasons for the obsession with journals: articles are peer-reviewed (though so, too, are academic books in my experience), a good clutch of articles can be produced within the period of the assessment, journals are "ranked" and there is a whole industry associated with measuring journal prestige (though some recent work on citations by the economist Andrew Oswald casts doubt on the reliability of this as a true measure). Scientific journals can sometimes publish more quickly than a book publisher. The journal article is therefore a handy unit of measurement.

But when made into the dominant part of a formal system of assessment with big financial rewards attached, their use becomes something of a game. As with any score-based game, human beings are very clever at finding ways to work the system to their advantage. You do what you have to do to get articles published in the right journals, the reason for the research becoming secondary. Crucially, the pressure to be published in the top journals can dictate what research you do. It increases a tendency to play to what the journal likes, to not threaten the status quo in the discipline, to be risk-averse and less innovative, to concentrate on small incremental steps and to avoid big-picture interdisciplinary work.

The excessive focus on journal articles means that we leave it to others to write our challenging monographs, advanced field-defining textbooks and "big idea" books for the general market. The incentive to make use of the bigger canvas that books can provide has largely been removed in these disciplines. Our scholars are hemmed in. What British academic economist would have the time or motivation to write a book such as the influential and popular Why Globalization Works by the journalist Martin Wolf? Would Richard Dawkins, if starting out in his research career right now, sit down to pen The Selfish Gene ? He tells me the answer is definitely "no".

Ironically, if citations are the name of the game, then books are very often more statistically significant in the long run, and book publishers could do more to promote this. Take a look in Google Scholar at some of the world's leading economists (Jean Tirole, Amartya Sen, Joseph Stiglitz and Paul Krugman, for example) and see the extent to which books feature in their most cited works. Sen's top eight are all books.

A more metrics-based and journals-dominated replacement for the RAE will undoubtedly be successful in mechanically ranking UK scientific departments in a neat and accountable way. Hierarchies based on article output will be confirmed, the job market will react accordingly and the bureaucrats will congratulate themselves on a job well done. But will it improve scholarship? Will the UK win more Nobel prizes? Will bright young things be encouraged to embark on an exciting career in research (or even, God forbid, teaching)? I wouldn't count on it.

Richard Baggaley is European publishing director for Princeton University Press.

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