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Writing in the Academy - Reputation, Education and Knowledge

Tomorrow's Research

Message Number: 
841

Simply, academics who excel in publishing their writing are often appointed to key positions, gain access to economic resources, and occupy major gate-keeping roles. Not only do they achieve social power in their disciplines, but tend to form an elite as they exercise influence in setting standards, directing strategies, and determining what is considered good work or important topics. They may also gain greater influence as spokespeople for their colleagues, and more likely to become members of government committees and grant bodies that decide the fate of funding applications and research contracts.

Folks:

The posting below looks at how publications impact faculty careers. It is by Ken Hyland, Professor of Education, TESOL; Director of the Centre for Academic & Professional Literacy Studies (CAPLITS), Dept. of Learning, Curriculum & Communication and is based on a Professorial lecture delivered at the Institute of Education, University of London on 17 October 2006.First published in 2007 by the Institute of Education, University of London 20 Bedford Way, London WC1H OAL www.ioe.ac.uk/publications ©Institute of Education, University of London 2002. Reprinted with permission.

Regards,

Rick Reis

reis@stanford.edu

UP NEXT: The Habit of Learning

Tomorrow's Research

 

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Writing in the Academy - Reputation, Education and Knowledge

Reputation

 

Clearly, writing has enormous relevance to the ways individuals construct themselves as competent academics, build professional visibility, and establish reputations. I've mentioned the importance of disciplinary discourse conventions and the need for writers to project an appropriate, disciplinary defined stance and to engage with their readers in ways they are likely to find familiar and persuasive. In this sense the importance of academics cannot be overestimated. But writing has become even more important as the institutionalized system which both creates knowledge and distributes rewards: the system of publication. A paper is judged as a contribution to a particular field by an audience of colleagues who are potentially in a position to make use of it. If editors, referees, proposal readers, conference attendees, or journal readers regard it as original and significant, allow it to be published, cite it in their own work, and develop it further, then the writer receives the reward of recognition.

Simply, academics who excel in publishing their writing are often appointed to key positions, gain access to economic resources, and occupy major gate-keeping roles. Not only do they achieve social power in their disciplines, but tend to form an elite as they exercise influence in setting standards, directing strategies, and determining what is considered good work or important topics. They may also gain greater influence as spokespeople for their colleagues, and more likely to become members of government committees and grant bodies that decide the fate of funding applications and research contracts.

Latour and Woolgar (1978), in a well-known use of a market metaphor and echoing Bourdieu's (1991) notion of symbolic value, see academics as engaged in converting different kinds of 'credit' in a cycle of moves designed to maximize their credibility. A successful publication may help a researcher gain credit which can be converted into a research grant to finance equipment and recruit colleagues. This in turn generates more data which can be converted to arguments, fresh publications, and so on. Credibility thus helps academics to progress:

For example, a successful investment might mean that people phone him, his abstracts are accepted, others show interest in his work, he believed more easily and listened to with greater attention, he is offered better positions, his assays work well, data flow more reliably and form a more credible picture. (Latour and Woolgar, 1979:204)

Success is seen a largely measured by recognition and, in turn, the process of acquiring recognition as dependent on the capacity to write papers valued by one's colleagues.

Academics are, of course, motivated by curiosity and driven by a need to understand the issues they research, although most admit that recognition is an important source of professional reward and so publish to further their careers. But because reputation is translated into concrete consequences, and because both material and symbolic capital are scarce, academic publication is fiercely competitive. This institutionally sanctioned competition is generally supposed to be a spur to advancing knowledge, but it is now inseparable from the process by which prestige and credibility are assessed. Publication comes to equal 'productivity' and is used as a crude measure of worth, with institutions conferring promotion and tenure on the length of personal bibliographies. The emergence of Research Assessment Exercises and publication of university league tables in many countries act to fan these flames.

Writing is both the stick and the carrot which propels us around the academic treadmill. As James Watson, Nobel laureate and a member of the biology establishment, spells out:

It starts at the beginning. If you publish first, you become a professor first, your future depends on some indication that you can do something by yourself. It's that simple. Competitiveness is very dominant. The chief emotion in the field. (Cited in Judson, 1995)

Competition is increasingly important with the growth of commercial incentives which, in technological fields in particular, may be even stronger than intellectual ones.

So the pressure has been increased on academics - not only has the need to publish never been greater, but this has to be done in English. Research shows that academics all over the world are increasingly less likely to publish in their own languages and to find their English language publications cited more often. There were over 1.1 million peer-reviewed research articles published globally in English in 2005 and this number has been increasing by 4 per cent annually despite falling library budgets. This has meant that the numbers of non-native English speaking academics publishing in English language journals is increasing dramatically.

References to English language publications, for example, have reached 85 per cent in French science journals and English makes up over 95 per cent of all publications in the Science Citation Index. There were, in addition, over 4,000 papers in English language social science journals in 2005 compared with only 400 just eight years earlier. With publishers increasingly encouraging libraries to subscribe to online versions of journals, the impact of English becomes self-perpetuating, since it is in these journals where authors will be most visible on the world stage and receive the most credit. Many European and Japanese journals, for instance, have switched to English with journals in Swedish, Dutch and German being extremely hard hit.

Clearly a lingua franca facilitates the exchange of ideas far more effectively than a polyglot system, but there is a real danger this will exclude many second language writers from the web of global scholarship, so depriving the world of knowledge developed outside the Anglophone centers of research. One consequence has been the development of writing for publication courses for academic staff at universities around the world. In Hong Kong staff were extremely appreciative of these courses, but also very secretive about actually attending them. This perhaps another feature of academic writing that I haven't mentioned: not only does it have to be engaging, interesting and persuasive, it must also be effortless.