Both Students And Professors Need Certification, and the Elsevier Boycott

I’ve written before about the evils of grading (for example, see here and here), the main purpose of which is to make certifying students easy. Our current grading system in mathematics is counterproductive to learning (students are inhibited from engaging in essential learning activities out of the fear that is naturally induced by typical high-stakes grading systems), and there is a strong tendency for course content to be skewed towards what is easy to grade rather than what is best for students’ development. The practice of assigning partial credit allows students to accumulate marks towards a good grade without doing the intensive work necessary for mastery, to their ultimate detriment, as most of them eventually reach a level where they fail unnecessarily because their background preparation is so weak. Politicians manipulate the system to increase the number of students who reach certain grade levels, which allows them to bathe in the warm glow of counterfeit success, to the detriment of our students and our society. To make matters worse, there is intense pressure in the U.S. nowadays to hold teachers accountable by assessing teacher performance based on their students’ scores on standardized tests. This is great for the publishers who produce the tests, who are profiting handsomely, but not so great for students, teachers, and society.

After understanding that students were not responsible for setting up this dysfunctional system, it would be inappropriate to blame them for their unhealthy focus on grades. (Every teacher who ever lived can recall hearing some other teacher complain about “students nowadays, who only care about marks, not about the spirit of learning.”) Students are under enormous pressure to get high grades, because we have set up a system in which their entrance to university undergraduate programs, entrance to graduate and professional schools, scholarships — in short, their entire career success — depends on grades. It seems absolutely silly to base everything on a single number, but there you have it.

It’s worth noting that professors are subject to similar pressure for certification. Forgetting about the same competition for high grades while they were students, professors are under intense pressure to achieve high “grades” for their career success in academia. They need high “grades” to achieve tenure, to be promoted to full rank, and to receive their yearly merit increases in salary. In this case, their “grades” are composed of factors that account for their performance as teachers, their service to their department, faculty, and university community, but by far the most important factor is their research. (Despite protestations to the contrary from university administrators about how much universities value good teaching (and I’m sure they do), note that it is quite possible to become a full professor while being a consistently below-average teacher, while being a stellar teacher but a below-average researcher will never get you to the full professor rank.)

And just as rich businessmen are leading the attack on public school teachers (to the benefit of rich publishing companies), and are thereby influencing in an unhealthy way the environment and conditions of our childrens’ education, rich publishing companies are in control of the certification system for professors’ research, to the benefit of themselves, at great costs to universities, and therefore to the detriment of society.

For professors, their research contribution is graded based on the frequency and quality of their published papers, and on the number and value of their research grants. (The latter also depends on the former. Also, I know that there are other factors, such as participation in conferences, but published research is the most important factor.)

However, how on earth is a university administrator supposed to judge the value of research in a field in which he or she is not an expert? (Which is to say, practically all fields of research.)

This is where the academic journal publishers step in. They provide a service by publishing a large number of journals, with varying levels of prestige, and so a professor’s research can be judged by a non-expert by counting the number of papers published, weighting them according to the prestige of the journal, accounting for impact factors, and so on.

In days gone by, journal publishers provided services that could not be easily provided by individual professors. For example, typesetting mathematical texts used to be a very expensive task that only highly specialized typesetters could accomplish. Mathematical manuscripts were often hand-written, and turning them into professional-quality publications was a very useful step in disseminating and archiving a paper. Publishers hired copy-editors to make manuscripts more readable. The tasks of editing academic journals and refereeing papers was (and is) done on a volunteer basis by professors.

Nowadays, however, with $TeX$, $LaTeX$, and all of its friends freely available to the vast majority of mathematics and science researchers, the need for publishers is questionable. If professors are doing the work of typesetting papers, refereeing them, and editing journals anyway, what value do journal publishers add? Journal publishers have cut back drastically on copy-editing, their function as an archiver is unnecessary now that electronic means of archiving are widely available, so the only thing that they really provide is prestige. But prestige is a chimera, and can be easily accounted for in other ways.

What exacerbates the situation is that journal publishers make absolutely enormous profits, which ultimately are paid for by our taxpayers. Publishers often place the published papers behind paywalls so that the same taxpayers who paid for the research in the first place have to pay again to read the results.

Still worse is the way that publishers of academic journals shake down university libraries. Taxpayers pay for the research done at universities (yes, private universities receive some private funding, but they are still financially supported by taxpayers), and a powerful argument for open access is that taxpayers should not have to pay a second time to have access to published research. This argument gains in strength when one realizes the enormous profits made by publishers of academic journals, on the backs of volunteer labour (the same academics who referee papers submitted to journals, edit the journals, etc.).

Reed Elsevier has been judged the worst offender , and thanks to an initiative spearheaded by Tim Gowers, a boycott of Elsevier has been organized. To learn more about the boycott, which has been in the news and all over the internet for the past few weeks, see the links in the following paragraph.

Authoritative arguments in favour of open access (see here and here), and against large publishers of academic journals, are made by Tim Gowers (here and here; the latter includes an incisive open letter outlining the motivation for the boycott, signed by 34 prominent mathematicians), and Terence Tao (here and here). Other valuable resources are John Baez’s page on journal publishing reform (also see here and here, where Baez makes recommendations for introducing new systems, including Math 2.0 (a discussion forum started by Andrew Stacey and Scott Morrison), and here), and Michael Nielsen’s page on journal publishing reform (also see here for a concise summary of the Elsevier issue). Prominent bloggers who have commented on the issue include Scott Aaronson, Nassif Ghoussoub, Cathy O’Neil (here and here), and Peter Krautzberger (here and here), and Sean Carroll. The issue has even hit the mainstream, at The New York Times and The Boston Globe.

If you would like to add your signature to the protest site, The Cost of Knowledge, it is here. I just checked the site and currently 6251 mathematicians and scientists from around the world have signed to publicize their decision to boycott (in various degrees) Reed Elsevier.

This whole issue deserves serious discussion within the scientific community, and the wider public needs to become aware of it. Most universities are continually crying about how they are strapped for resources, and their libraries are blackmailed by large publishers of academic journals. Reed Elsevier is the worst offender, but not the only one.  The issue has been discussed for a long time (see some of David Mermin’s contributions, for example here, which is reprinted on pages 57–62 here; other references are listed in the open letter signed by Gowers et al linked here; a recent example is an article by Peter Olver in the September 2011 issue of the Notices of the AMS here) and it’s good to see some serious action.

It’s heart-warming to see academics working to wrest control of their research publications away from large, powerful, greedy academic publishers such as Reed Elsevier. One hopes that along with this initiative there will be movement towards a more fair and humane system for evaluating the contributions of professors. And maybe we can figure out a way to evaluate students in a more humane way while we’re at it.

Update: Cosma Shalizi makes the point a lot better and more concisely than I do here. (Thanks to Sam Alexander for the link.)

(This post first appeared at my other (now deleted) blog, and was transferred to this blog on 21 January 2021.)