Concerns over Academic Analytics at Rutgers

AAUP-AFT Rutgers

Academic Analytics, a private database contracted to measure faculty productivity at Rutgers, may undermine our tenure process, while narrowing the range of scholarship. If you belong to SASNB [School of Arts and Sciences—New Brunswick], please attend the School’s faculty meeting on Monday, 14 December from 2:00-4:00 p.m. in Voorhees 105 (College Ave.) to vote on a resolution addressing these issues.

 

Over the past year or so, many of you have shared concerns regarding the Administration’s use of a database owned by Academic Analytics, LLC. That firm tallies our productivity–measured quantitatively on the basis of articles, books, citations, awards, grants, grant dollars, and conference proceedings—and compares us against a global mean. The more details we’ve learned about Academic Analytics, the more convinced the union is that faculty must act to limits its use.

Academic Analytics collects and crunches this information from publicly accessible websites relating to more than 270,000 professors. In April, the Union invited Professor John Holmwood (Sociology, Nottingham) to present on the deleterious effects of such metrics in the UK. His talk and related information may be found here.

At Rutgers, Academic Analytics seems to have had very little impact so far. The Administration has been using the database since Richard Edwards signed an agreement with the firm in May 2013. The Union obtained that contract under the Open Public Records Act, and we have posted it here. That document indicates that the university is paying $492,500 over four years for the service. The contract also stipulates rules under which most faculty will not have access to the data. So far, our Administration has given passwords to deans, some department chairs, and some graduate program directors in the GSNB.

This secretive process raises the first and most pressing concern. Under the collective bargaining agreement signed with the Union last spring, the Administration committed to the openness of personnel files. Thus, the candidate for tenure and promotion may examine–and indicate errors in–all relevant documents in a personnel file, excluding only the outside letters. By the same token, no administrator or evaluator may consult Academic Analytics in the course of assessing a faculty member for advancement. Unofficially, some deans have already pledged to restrain themselves in this way. Executive Dean Robert Goodman even put that promise in writing.

In that spirit, the Union is seeking to guarantee the exclusion of Academic Analytics legally, explicitly, and comprehensively across the Rutgers system. On 16 December, we will meet with upper-level management to propose 1) that the Administration exclude Academic Analytics data from all tenure, reappointment, and promotion considerations; and 2) that the Administration distribute one’s own data to every faculty member covered by the database. The second point would give faculty the ability to correct errors. It also accords with the evolving best practice regarding publicly collected “big data,” i.e. that affected individuals have the right to scrutinize and challenge the records. (See Paragraph #13 here.)

Many of you have raised a further set of concerns relating to the use of Academic Analytics to evaluate departments and programs. The Administration absolutely intends to employ that database for this purpose. To allocate funds for curricula and faculty lines, some deans and chancellors appear to be comparing our units with discipline-specific or CIC-specific benchmarks. This process seems to have advanced farthest in New Brunswick’s School of Arts and Sciences and the Graduate School, New Brunswick.

In principle, few of us would object to making such comparisons. The Academic Analytics database, however, suffers from systematic flaws that render it unsuitable and possibly dangerous. To list only a few such deficits, the seven measures mentioned above fail to count numerous journals, many granting agencies, and various forms of collaboration on grants. I have attached my own original and corrected data–obtained after an Open Public Records request–as an example.

Most fundamentally, the entirely quantitative approach conflates apples and oranges and runs roughshod over the nuanced peer judgment so characteristic of Academia thus far. Academic Analytics falls far short of the evolving standards for scholarly bibliometrics, as presented in the Leiden Manifesto.

What consequences might flow from such a warped set of metrics? I can easily imagine department chairs and their faculties attempting to “game the system,” that is to publish in the journals, obtain the grants, and collaborate in the ways that Academic Analytics counts. Indeed, a chair might feel obligated, for the good of her department, to push colleagues to compete in the race. If so, then we all lose.

Faculty would put less energy into teaching, service, and civic engagement—all activities ignored by the database. Scholarship would narrow to fit the seven quantifiable grooves. We would lose something of the diversity, heterodoxy, and innovation that is, again, so characteristic of Academia thus far. This firm creates incentives to encourage exactly that kind of decline.

So, in my capacity as a member of the SASNB faculty, I have joined with numerous co-sponsors to propose a resolution that would prohibit the application of Academic Analytics in decisions affecting the composition of the faculty, graduate and undergraduate curricula, and grant-writing.

The resolution is here. I urge all of you who are voting members of the SASNB faculty to attend the meeting. It will run from 2:00-4:00 p.m. on Monday 14 December in Voorhees Hall, room 105 (College Ave. Campus).

If adopted, this resolution would only affect the School of Arts and Sciences, New Brunswick. Depending on the outcome of our labor-management discussion on the 16th, I may be contacting those of you in other schools to see if you would like to pass a similar resolution.

Thank you for wading through this message. I wrote it as concisely as I could.

Complexity now seems to come with the territory of higher education. As we saw with the Pearson contract, the Administration is now outsourcing core functions to private firms in secret deals. It takes all of us–scrutinizing and analyzing as scholars do–to monitor and protect our beloved university.

In solidarity,

David M. Hughes

President, Rutgers AAUPAFT

 

 

5 thoughts on “Concerns over Academic Analytics at Rutgers

  1. As a faculty member and parent with twins who have Rutgers on their list of colleges to apply to this Fall, this practice gives me pause. Evaluating faculty research productivity requires close and careful analysis by expert peers to be able to understand the significance and impact of the work. Attempting to create a quantitative measure that can provide an accurate represention is really quite impossible and would lead to faculty and Departments gaming the system, just as you suggest. This will not improve the quality, vibrancy, or significance of faculty work. It will erode it.

    • You raise some excellent points, Jodi. And I agree, quality must always come before quantity. What I fear even more so is a system such as the one in place at Rutgers not only encourages those who are already gamers and scammers to rise in the ranks, but that it also would transform quality scholars into mediocre faculty.

      I say this because when the dedicated and talented see the ship sinking, they either jump into a life boat and sail elsewhere, or resign themselves to such mediocrity. I also believe there may be a bigger agenda that meets the eye. University administrations- by design- are authoritarian if not dictatorial. It’s a power dynamic that must be held in check to protect academic quality. University administrations do not especially enjoy inclusiveness and openness when it comes to decision-making processes.

      So, when the faculty become diluted to such an extent that the quality of scholarship has plummeted, administrations can wield much more power over the faculty. That is to say, everyone is left with the realization that not only are they replaceable, they are disposable. That realization creates a very intimidating power dynamic, and one that gives administrations like Rutgers an unfair advantage.

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