Leadership in Scholarship: A Faculty Role

The blog Retraction Watch, on its FAQ page, states:

We wholeheartedly agree it’s important to check out tips — anonymous or not — about potentially dodgy papers. But doing that right would require a much larger team, so we’ve decided that publicizing retractions that do happen — and finding out why papers were retracted, not always a simple task — was a better use of our efforts.

They are responding to complaints that, essentially, they do not do enough.

Instead of complaining about what others are not doing to stem the tide of plagiarism and other forms of academic dishonesty in scholarly publishing, we should all, on the faculty, be doing what Retraction Watch does–and more. This isn’t something to be left to others.

An editorial appearing in today’s New York Times ends with this:

There are many theories for why retractions and fraud have increased. A benign view suggests that because journals are now published online and more accessible to a wider audience, it’s easier for experts to spot erroneous or fraudulent papers. A darker view suggests that publish-or-perish pressures in the race to be first with a finding and to place it in a prestigious journal has driven scientists to make sloppy mistakes or even falsify data. The solutions are not obvious, but clearly greater vigilance by reviewers and editors is needed.

It’s not just scientists, of course. Every area of academic publishing faces the same problems. Though the Times is right, it is not just reviewers and editors who need to be more on their toes, but all of us. On hiring, tenure, and promotion committees, too many of us scan the articles and books presented–at most. Generally, all we do, in practice, is note the venue of publication. If it meets our nebulous criteria for quality, we are “impressed”–though we have never looked at the paper or book itself.

There are other ways, too, besides actually reading and evaluating the work, that we can help make sure that errors and, indeed, fraud are kept at bay. Few of us, for example,  draw our colleagues in sufficiently when we are in the later stages of our own work, making use of their expertise as spotters of problems.

The reason little vigilance is out there among the faculty isn’t laziness or sloppiness but the simple fact that our universities are placing higher and higher burdens on their full-time faculties in terms of “service” and higher and higher expectations in terms of scholarship. This is caused partially by the increased reliance on adjuncts and temporary hires, placing administrative responsibilities on fewer and fewer faculty shoulders. It is caused partially by the desire of almost every college and university to increase its research profile, demanding more from the faculty in terms of scholarship but rarely giving additional internal support for those doing it.

It is also caused partially by an odd combination of disdain for scholarship and demand for more of it–on the part of everyone from politicians to TV pundits to parents.

But causes aren’t solutions.

Obviously, it isn’t enough to say that we need to be on our toes. Yes, we should be reading the material that comes before us with a great deal more care than we do now. But we also need the space for doing so, space that is rarely afforded us.

How do we get that space?

As we on the faculty are the ones with the greatest understanding of the demands of scholarly work, we should be the ones setting our university work agendas and schedules, not simply bowing to outside and administrative forces. We need to start saying “That’s our decision” instead of meekly accepting the plans made by others. This really is a question of shared governance, something we have let melt away over the last generation and something we need to start demanding once more.

The first things we should do is start insisting that we do the full work in vetting each other. If other administrative duties get pushed aside, so be it. Before our Peers Committees meet to consider promotion, we should make sure that each member has taken a close look at the contents of the file, reading carefully all articles and books within particular areas of expertise and not relying on the decisions made by unknown editors and reviewers. We should do the same on our hiring and renewal committees. I know: we are pressured to make decisions quickly, but we need to start resisting that.

Next, we could start recognizing as an important “service” component the act of assisting in the preparation of articles and books of others–within one’s own department and beyond. The more we encourage each other to do this, the fewer problems that will arise. This activity could come under both “scholarship” and “service,” but making it “service” will help deflect the demands that our institutions are placing on us, demands that move us away from our primary tasks of teaching and scholarship.

There are other things we could do as well.

It’s on us to provide the leadership that will solve the problems of shaky publication. I hope we will at least give it a try.

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