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Slow silence

The ‘slow science’ movement is on to something

It is unlikely that French anthropologist Jöel Candau or the other advocates of ‘slow science’ are going to halt the march of progress, which demands the rapid-fire publication of research results.

The movement’s supporters are likely to remain on the fringes of academic opinion. Nonetheless, they are brave—ignoring the inevitable jibes about academics cosseted in ivory towers, and daring to speak the truth to power. They reflect deep misgivings, across all disciplines and territories, about the general direction of academia.

The global move to use volume of publications in heavily cited journals as the main criteria for academic excellence has been gathering pace for some time. It is perhaps most advanced in the UK, where the Research Assessment Exercise (now renamed the Research Excellence Framework) has acquired an all-pervasive influence. In some instances, that degree of influence can seriously distort the priorities of universities and university departments. Prolific authorship has become an academic’s greatest asset. All over the world, the number of publications per researcher is rising, to be published in ever more specialised English-language journals.

There are obvious downsides to this. One is the dislocation that it creates between the university and the community that it serves. The closer academic interests are drawn to publication in some English-language journal, the further they are drawn away from local priorities and interests.

Another more widely noted defect is the extent to which this relentless pursuit of publication can come at the expense of other academic duties where good performance cannot be readily measured, such as teaching.

The most serious problem, however, is that measurements of the quantity of articles published in particular journals has never been proven to truly correlate with research excellence.

Publishing more papers is not the same thing as generating better ideas. Most eminent research careers are based on one or two really good ideas, which often occur early and are nurtured later on in an academic’s career. But the emerging academic environment obliges these researchers to keep publishing for as long as they can, making full use of their contacts and their understanding of how the game is played. It could be argued that many mid and late-career researchers would be better employed as teachers and mentors to others.

In the end, this fixation on publications and citations is not proven to improve research or teaching. It has crept up on the academic community, because publications and citations can be measured more readily than other academic attributes. The outcome sometimes resembles nothing more than a gravy train, in danger of careering out of control.

Now some researchers are jumping off and calling attention to the virtues of what they call ‘slow science’. Like the Occupy Wall Street protests that began a year ago, they are not focused, and lack both organisation and a clearly identifiable objective. But also like the Occupy movement, they represent part of the zeitgeist. Their arguments have the ring of truth on what constitutes genuine ‘research quality’. Sooner or later, policymakers will need to listen.