This post kinda came out of a presentation I gave at bathcamp and the previous post on The Cost of Knowledge.  That presentation was about how the domain of formal knowledge as presented by academic publications was needlessly costing us as taxpayers millions of pounds a year *and* yet still kept this ‘knowledge’ under copyright so you couldn’t access it without paying and so, it heeded the transfer of knowledge. 

As I was writing that talk it struck me that citations, the format for attribution in print, was fundamental to the structure of power that had emerged in higher education.  This post is about that.  It’s about how citations are technologies and the reason I think it’s interesting is that this presents a different lens on what we see as technologies which can help us do better Design Research.  The lens I want to describe is one espoused by Bruno Latour and others around Actor Network Theory.  They have an interesting take on technology which can be summed up in the following quote: “technology is society made durable” (Latour).   

citationslow.gifLet’s begin with a story.  Derek is an academic, a lecturer in Geography at a “red brick” University.  He could rest on his laurels and take his salary.  But he wants to progress, get more money and become a senior lecturer.  One way to further his career is to do research.  To do research takes time and he either eeks out this time from his teaching schedule or he ‘pitches’ research proposals to one of a few research councils and grant bodies.  One project on “cities of data” is successful.  One of the requirements of the research is that it is made public.  The grant body does this.  However, the grant bodies publication has little kudos in the academic world and *it is not considered as a measure when being considered for promotion*, although the ability to get funding is.  So Derek needs to publish his work for peer review to be “measured” for quality by peers and if he’s successful it is published in one of a few journals.

Derek wants to pick a journal that will look ‘good’ on his record, something well known.  But another factor for consideration is how the journal is perceived in the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE).  The RAE is a process run by the HEFCE (Higher Education Funding Council for England) that measures University department ‘quality’ based on their knowledge output. His choice of publication is based upon which will give him the best possible chance of receiving a high measure.  Popular publications measure more highly as higher supply supposedly pushes up the quality threshold.  Ony the very best is published.    

Derek references his peer group, people whom study the same or relevant subjects to his. In turn they reference him.  Those that break from the cycle of genre busting authors, those who create neologisms, signifiers to describe new concepts.  They get lots of citations.  They’re in the ‘head’ of the citation index and not in the Long Tail with it’s clusters of sub-discipline citation ‘niches’.

We can see from this simplified story how citations embed social practice, values and people. They are also the things around which these things cohere.  They are in short, technologies. They’re almost too innocuous to be seen to be ‘powerful’.  But they are: 

1. They’re the basis for academic standing – acknowledging an intellectual debt

2. They’re the basis upon which over £1bn in funding is distributed each year to academics and depertments in Universities to research stuff. Citations are the metric used for judging the rating by which funding is allocated.

3. Every year academics are hired on their ability to get cited. It’s a skill which in part creates ways of defining concepts (neologisms and new concepts being potentially more powerful ‘hooks’ for other people to reference).

And they have formats. It\s no wonder we’re educated in how to cite others’ work (see this list for a failry exhaustive description of different ways to format citations).  It’s a big deal. 

There is a committee looking at this apparently (thanks to someone at bathcamp for pointing this out with the ajoinder, “I know about all this stuff but find all the web2.0 stuff far more interesting”) called REF (Research Excellence Framework):

REF, which replaces peer-review judgments in science subjects with a
system of metrics, including a count of the number of times
researchers’ published work is cited by their peers..  (link)

The REF is basing its measure of how well researchers produce knowledge or add to the body of knowledge in circulation on “bibliometrics“.  It’s a whole new science of citations!

So what?  Looking at non-human things as cohering power can be helpful in Design Research.  Many researchers still look at people as the only active participants (popular in Humanist philosophy).  They have exclusive agency.  However, in describing how things happen and describing all the actors (human and non-human) involved in the process you can start to better understand where power resides.  In this instance not with the HEFCE or with the individual academics but with a textual format, the citation. This then could and should be a focus for thinking through the problem of Higher Education funding.

The Guardian has a good article of the effects of ‘bibliometricity’ which it argues is ‘narrowing’  study, making research more niche and resulting in academic research being gamed, becoming little more than a popularity contest:

Adding to the problem is the fact that methods to measure research
impact are becoming more numerical. For example, the number of times an
article is cited by others has become a proxy for quality. There is
even a formula that will reduce a researchers’ whole career to one
digit, called the H-index (,
which been used for recruiting researchers for tenure in the US. “A lot
of people feel that their H-index is the most important thing on their
CV,” says Bentley.

This focus on numbers encourages both
researchers and journals to play games to raise their impact scores.
Some play harder than others. A journal called Behavioral and Brain
Sciences has come up with a nifty way of boosting its impact factor –
how often authors in it are cited. It now identifies a “target
article”, and then commissions a dozen comments to appear alongside it,
giving the article 12 citations directly on publication.

The game
playing in the UK’s research assessment exercise is another example,
says Bentley. “When considering what articles to submit for evaluation,
you may have this really good one in a low-ranking journal, and then
you have something in a high-ranking journal, and you always submit
that high-ranking article to the RAE even if you think that what you
wrote was much better in the other one.”

Worth a read.



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