Considering how sustainability research fits into the landscape of academic publishing and responding to a critique that half of sustainability research adds little to the field, Thomas Bauwens, Denise Reike and Martin Calisto argue that rather than being misplaced, sustainability research offers new ways of thinking about how academic research can contribute to solving global crises.
Is sustainability research broken? A recent opinion piece suggests so, claiming that up to 50% of published sustainability research is ‘scholarly bullshit’. Although being critical of contemporary publishing culture and advocating scientific rigour should be encouraged, is this really a solution? Dismissing half of an entire research stream as ‘bullshit’ based on unclear methodology contributes to cultivating homogeneity and elitism in academia, which is known to be highly exclusive. Rather than shaming scholars and their work, we advocate for a more nuanced and constructive debate on the systemic causes for the current crisis in academic research and publishing.
Scholars have long acknowledged the flaws in academic publishing, from the pressure to publish only positive results, to the reproducibility crisis, issues of plagiarism, ‘salami slicing,’ duplicate publication, and fraud, and the sheer increase in the number of low-quality, hardly read papers. However, as we document, these issues are likely symptoms of a wider problem: the pervasive marketisation of academia.
Measuring success in the academic marketplace
Defined in our work as the adoption of market logic as the prime institutional arrangement for pursuing academia, the ongoing marketisation of research poses significant risks to the reliability and spectrum of what is put into the academic sphere.
Dismissing half of an entire research stream as ‘bullshit’ based on unclear methodology contributes to cultivating homogeneity and elitism in academia
Accordingly, scholarly publications are increasingly treated as a commodity to be traded by institutions for profit. In 2017, the academic publishing industry was positioned between the music and film industries in terms of global sales, with total global revenues of more than $19 billion and profit margins of approximately 40% for the five dominant publishing companies.
Moreover, universities and research institutes are increasingly managed as businesses. This skews evaluation systems and places greater emphasis on crude metrics and performance indicators, such as number of publications per year. Although such a managerial trend might improve academic productivity and transparency in promotion processes, it has considerable negative consequences for the quality and creativity of academic research.
Sustainability as victim
This flawed system lies at the heart of academia’s inability to tackle increasingly important subjects that do not typically fit such closely defined fields and boundaries for success. Notably, sustainability research, where research on gender inequality, or the growing biodiversity crisis fail to gain traction and respect in academic publishing, due to the nature of how this research should be conducted. Sustainability researchers typically approach ‘wicked problems’ through long-term, inter or trans-disciplinary research. This type of work sits at odds with a metrics focused, fast-based approach that pushes researchers to publish quickly and deters them from innovative high-risk/high-gain research pathways.
Sustainability researchers typically approach ‘wicked problems’ through long-term, inter or trans-disciplinary research. This type of work sits at odds with a metrics focused, fast-based approach
Consequently, scholars can end up overlooking the complexity of sustainability challenges or the broader societal and economic dynamics of the problem. This trend can also curtail the development of critical research streams that address the responsibilities of current socio-economic practices in perpetuating social and ecological crises, limiting the capacity of sustainability science to offer transformative solutions from different perspectives, from de-growth, to post-development and decolonial thinking from the Global North and South.
Sustainability as saviour
To restore this balance, we offer a new route for reclaiming meaningful research. The characteristics of sustainability research may make the discipline a lost ship, navigating through the sea of marketised academia. Simultaneously, however, they also offer a beacon of hope by highlighting the potential levers through which we can break apart entrenched structures in academia and inspire other academic fields.
First, sustainability researchers are intrinsically normatively driven; the field is also relatively new and growing. This presents opportunities to engage in reflexive thinking and actions that transform the organisational structures that underpin research and teaching. Actions such as choosing to reward and progress academic careers by recognising accomplishments beyond publications and citations, democratising academia through horizontal governance structures, and improving work-life balance can all help to increase academic freedom and flexibility, ensuring that research is pursued with greater ethical commitment and purpose.
Second, sustainability research can expand the use of alternative research methods and philosophical approaches to scientific topics, such as transdisciplinary and participatory action research. These have the potential to open-up the ivory tower and break disciplinary silos, while enabling science to empower vulnerable groups and bring about systemic solutions to our socio-ecological crises.
Much as society must phase out fossil fuels and radically engage in sustainability transformations, so must research find ways to phase out of for-profit publishing and quantitative performance metrics
Third, marketisation of academic research needs to be tackled at the level of the university and at national and international levels. Enhancing the availability of public and impact-oriented funding for sustainability research could provide a parallel model for academics to work independently without the need for corporate collaboration or publication pressures. Much as society must phase out fossil fuels and radically engage in sustainability transformations, so must research find ways to phase out of for-profit publishing and quantitative performance metrics to embrace fundamentally transformative research and education.
Central to this final point is the creation and support of non-profit open-access journals that focus on high-quality research, rather than quantity. Such platforms could help both level and widen the academic playing field. Researchers and academic institutions can support non-profit, open-access journals in many ways. For instance, they can make public statements in favour of ethical and non-profit publishing or peer-review systems, withdraw free peer-review or editing labour from commercial journals, include the journal’s business model and publication ethics as criteria when deciding where to submit a paper, and discuss switching to ethical publishing with existing journal owners.
While changing the status quo will require radical reforms outside the strict academic realm, we believe that a collective effort from scholars and universities is the first necessary step towards truly transformative science. We believe sustainability research has the potential to be the starting point for thinking through this change and a beacon lighting the way for wider change for all researchers.
This post draws on the authors article, Science for sale? Why academic marketization is a problem and what sustainability research can do about it, published in the Environmental Innovation and Societal Transition.
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