Category: University

Photo by Joël de Vriend on Unsplash
Photo by Joël de Vriend on Unsplash

This is a part of the essay (actually the middle part) I have written during my ongoing project named The End of Truth as We Know It: The Disintegration of the University Discourse  (started in the University of Oslo, and continuing in Academy in Exile, Berlin). I don’t think it is publishable in an ‘academic journal’ as such, for reasons that will become apparent to readers upon reading it, and I am both too old and too pissed-off to self-censor. It is at the same time a call for new venues of scholarly publishing, as well as (a) post-neoliberal higher education institution(s). It is a work in progress rather than a ‘completed’ article, so feel free to comment, although privately, because I don’t think ‘venues’ like Facebook or Twitter serve as the proper media for such comment and discussion. I wish I could provide a Turkish translation, but for now, I have neither the time nor the patience (it is almost 10.000 words long).


 

‘The Trivialisation of Truth’ started a long time before the so-called era of Post-Truth, with (1) the ‘Neoliberal Takeover of Higher Education’ and (2) the (potentially) universal access to information without knowledge through the internet and in social media. These two instances resulted in the ultimate dissociation of information from knowledge, by making universities purveyors of practical and ‘useful’ (that is, useful for the capitalist establishment) information and gradually dismantling ‘useless’ knowledge production (that is, ‘useless’ from the point of view of capitalism) in the form of humanities, liberal arts and social sciences. (Flexner 1939; Ordine 2017). This development caused a hasty and mostly heedless turn towards social media as the source of ‘Truth’, which flourished without any checks and balances from the intellectual strata of society (which were being discredited as ‘the elite’ themselves, due to the rising wave of right-wing populism) disrupting the old hierarchy without replacing it with a viable alternative. The neoliberalisation of universities created a dog-eat-dog regime in teaching-learning, research and academic publishing. In this new regime, scholars relentlessly compete for grants and eventually succumb to the incessant demand to publish (no matter whether they have something significant to say or not) in order to improve (or even simply keep) their position as scholars. (Busch 2017). The result has been a rapidly growing walling-in, a profound isolation of the University Discourse, thereby giving even more credence to the populists’ accusations of ‘elitism’. The grants eventually established a strong corporate control over university research, and the ‘big’ (and increasingly profitable) business of so-called ‘academic publishing’ reinforced this control.

To tell the truth (insofar as it is still possible), University Discourse was never free of all these: blind submission to a mediaeval hierarchy, nepotism, plagiarism, conceit and elitism, and dependence on external financers (be they states or private patrons) were always a part of the university structure. This is why the neoliberal takeover, which is but a more systematic and organised form of all these together, took place without a serious resistance from within the university, except for a few solitary voices who took the submissive/utopian component inherent in the university seriously (which was also there all along), as a space where knowledge was freely produced and shared.

Where this neoliberal takeover failed, especially in some countries in the ‘East’ and in South America (the most recent example being Brazil), in cultures recently ‘modernised’ or in the process of ‘modernisation’, the establishment resorted to brute force and tended to destroy University Discourse altogether. It did this by first covertly, and eventually overtly, promoting ignorance and obedience, without any need for justification.[i] This has become the fertile ground on which today’s ultra-right populism may flourish, as well as its unmediated result. Wherever this ultra-right populism prevails, it first discredits and dismisses University Discourse as the haphazard blabber of the ‘elite’.

The gradual walling-in of the universities, and the growing inaccessibility of intellectual production within and around universities, in academic publications almost completely inaccessible for the ‘populace’, led people to search for the ‘Truth’ elsewhere, mainly in the social media and more generally throughout the internet, where there are no checks and balances, and a lie or a fallacy has the same semantic value as ‘Truth’. Therefore, the final outcome in the West was almost the same as it was in the East: an almost total decollement of ‘Truth’ from everyday life (Busch).

In the ‘democratic’ West, on the other hand, and especially in the US and the UK, where the existing ‘Regime of Truth’, loosely based on the University Discourse and its dissemination in the (both mainstream and alternative) media, is rapidly losing credibility and being replaced with a ‘Humpty Dumpty’ regime; words have come to mean whoever the Humpty Dumpty in power chooses them to mean. In these countries, universities were supposed to be ‘free’ in both research and teaching, although research funding was mostly left to big business and the career paths of scholars were determined by how many grants they get and how they fare in peer-reviewed academic journals almost entirely owned and regulated by big publishing monopolies. Although this system has hitherto managed to maintain at least a semblance of ‘Truth’, the veil is dropping fast, especially in view of the rapidly impending climate crisis, and the scientists and scholars who managed to survive within this system are being forced to ‘put up or shut up’, that is, turn into activists as well as scholars, or act as if no such crisis exists.

Academic or ‘peer-reviewed’ publishing throughout the last four decades, has started to act like St Peter at Pearly Gates, or, worse still, like Deli Dumrul.[ii] As it stands now, the existing Academic Publishing ‘industry’ not only stops all kinds of ‘maverick’ or ‘subversive’ ideas even before they are born (most scholars permanently self-censor, because ‘publishing’ has become more important than writing), but also stops anything published to reach the public by making all scholarly writing (1) conform to ‘scholarly’ paradigmatic and syntagmatic standards not penetrable by non-scholars; and (2) obscenely expensive lest they are accessed by people non-affiliated to universities.

In the last decade or so, academic publishing became a battlefield between some universities and NGOs demanding open-access publishing, and many publishing monopolies determined to keep the goose laying golden eggs under bolt and lock. Starting from 2012 some universities took a stand against academic publishing monopolies in favour of open-access. These developments, although positive on the whole, did not fail to create despicable by-products, e.g., ‘predatory’ journals which supposedly provide open-access, but charge desperate scholars obscene sums of money just in order to publish their studies (Bell 2017). More recently, partly as a result of the pressure from universities demanding open-access, the ‘top players’ of the academic publishing sector also partly adopted the predatory strategy (under the label ‘hybrid’) and publishing in academic journals evolved from ‘publish or perish’ to ‘pay or perish’, sometimes both (Hyland 2015; Michael 2018).

Once the absolute necessity of publishing as the indispensable prerequisite of academic advancement and survival is firmly established, academic journals, their editors and ‘referees’ (peers) obtain an unprecedented power over ‘writers’. ‘There were about 28,100 active scholarly peer-reviewed English-language journals in late 2014 (plus a further 6450 non-English-language journals), collectively publishing about 2.5 million articles a year’ (The STM Report, March 2015).[iii] In the publishing industry there were approximately 110.000 employees at that time, and even if we assume that all of these were editors (which would be unthinkable), an editor would have to read and evaluate and give feedback on 23 academic articles every year. To share this burden, editors delegate unpaid reviewers (‘peers’), most of whom do this as a chore, most of them not exactly in their fields of expertise, and definitely a significant number of them just in order to exercise this uncontested and arbitrary ‘power’ over their peers, all of which make up an extremely fragile system that does not work (Bal 2018). Richard Smith had asked the crucial question ‘Who is a peer?’ back in 2006, and the answer he suggested was not very promising for scholars who were then being eventually dependent upon that system:

But who is a peer? Somebody doing exactly the same kind of research (in which case he or she is probably a direct competitor)? Somebody in the same discipline? Somebody who is an expert on methodology? And what is review? Somebody saying ‘The paper looks all right to me’, which is sadly what peer review sometimes seems to be. Or somebody pouring all over the paper, asking for raw data, repeating analyses, checking all the references, and making detailed suggestions for improvement? Such a review is vanishingly rare. (Smith 2006, 178)

Assuming that all the standards are met, and the financial hurdles are cleared, though, this still does not mean that there is a significant exchange of information (let alone knowledge) among the scholarly community. Biswas and Kirchherr remarked in an article (in a non-academic journal, of course) in 2015, which was widely shared in the social media since, an indication that many academics were sincerely concerned about the issue, that:

Even debates among scholars do not seem to function properly. Up to 1.5 million peer-reviewed articles are published annually. However, many are ignored even within scientific communities—82 per cent of articles published in humanities are not even cited once. No one ever refers to 32 per cent of the peer-reviewed articles in the social and 27 per cent in the natural sciences.

If a paper is cited, this does not imply it has actually been read. According to one estimate, only 20 per cent of papers cited have actually been read. We estimate that an average paper in a peer-reviewed journal is read completely by no more than 10 people. Hence, impacts of most peer-reviewed publications even within the scientific community are minuscule. (Biswas & Kirchherr 2015)

The truth is, although the output of academic research constantly rises, it does not mean that the sharing of information and knowledge rises as well: quite to the contrary, the more academic articles are written and published, the less they are read. Furthermore, as Biswas and Kirchherr rightly comment, we do not have any data that having been mentioned or cited in other academic publications means that what we publish are actually read. To name the elephant in the room, a fact most academics know but are not very keen to mention publicly, is that many people who submit articles to journals are slyly careful to cite or mention articles by the editors, favourite authors, or potential reviewers of these journals, probably without reading these in full. It is, therefore, no coincidence that when the open-source website www.academia.edu, which was a free sharing place for published and unpublished scholarly writing alike, went ‘premium’ a few years ago, the only thing they charged money for was not posting an article, not downloading an article, but only seeing where you were mentioned and/or cited. Academics as a community may be mildly (or sometimes severely) narcissistic at times, but the fact that they are willing to pay for this (they must be, otherwise this ‘premium’ practice would have ended a long time ago) cannot be ascribed to narcissism alone: maybe they need some desperate proof that they are not shouting, like Midas, into a dried-up well.

As a further indicator of the inherent fragility of the peer-review system and so-called ‘academic publishing’ in general, it is a good idea to study the two notorious, unethical, but in their own way, successful ‘hoaxes’ (Sokal 1995 and ‘Grievance Studies’ 2018).[iv] These two much publicised ‘affairs’ which purported to ‘prove’ the futility and arrogance of inter- and trans-disciplinary fields of study such as Cultural Studies, Gender & Queer Studies or Postcolonial & Decolonial Studies, only proved (if not their own futility and arrogance) the fragility and uselessness of the peer-review system (and the existing regime of academic publishing) as a whole.

To conclude, the isolation of universities from the public, by letting more and more people in as students (in the US and UK cases, as clients permanently indebted to their creditors), but letting less and less knowledge out by creating a vicious atmosphere of rivalry and competition within, and erecting ‘Trump’s Walls’ of academic publishing around, brings about an almost total collapse of University Discourse. In its stead, ‘Truth’ becomes a product of an endless bargaining between different forms of media, some already directly controlled by despotic and corrupt governments, and others easily manipulated by the rising wave of right-wing populism. What we need today, as scholars both from countries with despotic/authoritarian regimes, where a ruthless persecution of the academia is at full-throttle, and from the supposedly more ‘democratic’ ones, where academics permanently fall prey to the dog-eat-dog regime generated by the neoliberal university structure and the Academic Publishing sector, to join forces to make some concrete and specific suggestions and on how to confront the crisis of neoliberalised universities and academic publishing together, and how new venues of both teaching-learning and academic publishing can be created.

Read the rest

 

[i] In 2016, the Vice-Rector of Istanbul Sabahattin Zaim University, Dr. Bülent Arı, declared on live TV that he ‘trusted in the acumen of the ignorant and uneducated people rather than the cultivated class’, and that he was ‘exasperated about the rise in literacy.’ He was eventually forced to resign his position as a result of public outburst at his words, only to be immediately appointed to the Supervisory Board of the Higher Education Council (https://www.birgun.net/haber/cahil-kesime-guveniyorum-diyen-profesor-yok-denetleme-kurulu-uyeligine-atandi-139491).

[ii] Deli Dumrul (Dumrul the Mad) is a character from one of the tales in the Turkish Dede Korkut saga (The Book of Dede Korkut 15th century AD, although the tale in oral culture may be as old as the 10th century). According to the tale, Dumrul ‘builds a bridge over a dried-up river bed, to collect haraç (extortion, tax), both from the ones who cross the bridge (33 akcha), and the ones who don’t (40 akcha plus a beating).’ (Çavdar 2019, 41)

[iii] The STM Report March 2015; https://www.stm-assoc.org/2015_02_20_STM_Report_2015.pdf).

[iv] For the ‘Grievance Studies Hoax’ (2018) see, https://areomagazine.com/2018/10/02/academic-grievance-studies-and-the-corruption-of-scholarship/; https://www.chronicle.com/article/What-the-Grievance/244753; https://slate.com/technology/2018/10/grievance-studies-hoax-not-academic-scandal.html. For the much older Alan Sokal hoax (1995), there has been accumulated a lot of literature, not to mention the book Sokal himself wrote, with Jean Bricmont, Fashionable Nonsense (1998), in which he sets out to ‘devastate’ the entire armada of contemporary French philosophers, guided by the false but apparently extremely colossal sense of self-esteem he gathered from having very cleverly deceived the editors of Social Text. (See, The Editors of Lingua Franca 2000, Holquist, et. al. 1996)

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