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Regular version of the site

Too Much Thought

How to stop the flow of bad academic publications


Redundancy and crisis — these are the words higher education experts Philip G. Altbach and Hans de Wit use to describe the situation in the global market of academic publications. It has been largely caused by external factors, such as the rise of university rankings that focus on the number of research and papers and pressure by publishers. But universities’ behavior is also an explanation for the crisis. Many of them try to imitate research universities and produce lots of publications of widely varying quality, the experts said in their paper in the HSE journal International Higher Education.

Overcoming Uniformity

Philip G. Altbach, founder of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College (USA), and Hans de Wit, the Centre director, believe that the glob­al knowledge-distribution system needs a change. ‘Too much academic re­search is being published,’ they say, while quality is decreasing. According to the researchers:

 Many universities produce lots of papers, without paying proper attention to their quality;

 Journals are overwhelmed with such high levels of production;

 A lot of quasi-scientific books are published;

 Predatory publishers are on the rise.

All these factors damage the knowledge-distribution system in general.

The situation has been largely caused by the global higher education policies. This is a highly competitive sphere. The competition is increased by various university rankings that impact the universities’ success. Related to this, the researchers argue, is the phenomenon of institutional isomorphism: ‘Most academic institutions want to resemble the universities at the top of the academic pecking order.’ Their positions look quite attractive (they have new opportunities for development and attract the best students and teachers), but they require a lot of research and publications. Consequently, university faculty appointments do not allocate ample time for teaching and class preparation, and this in turn impedes teaching. It makes sense to differentiate the universities’ academic missions. Most of them should ‘recognize their impor­tant roles as teaching-focused and not seek to become research-intensive institutions,’ the authors emphasize.

If research pub­lications are required only at research universities, our guess is that the quality of research and development would increase and more than half of current so-called research articles could be eliminated,’ Altbach and de Wit believe.

Rehabilitating Teaching

The researchers agree with the opinion of Ernest L. Boyer, an American education expert, who emphasizes the importance of assessing academic work by various criteria. Most university faculty should be assessed by the merits of their teaching rather than their research, since they do not work at research universities. University teachers obviously must follow the recent developments in their respective areas, but, according to Boyer, they should  not be obliged to produce new knowledge.

‘Faculty members should be rewarded for good teaching <…> and not expected to do fundamental re­search’, Altbach and de Wit add. They believe that ‘The German Humboldtian model, where all univer­sities have a research mission, is wasteful and unnecessary to maintain quality.’ Applied universities and other non-research higher education institutions should stay true to their names.

Implementing Internal Quality Control

A stricter selection process for research publications is needed. Of course, this does not mean preference should be given to universities in rich countries or certain academic groups, the researchers note. Research universities should produce new knowledge in all countries. Ideally, they should represent different perspectives and research paradigms. A stricter selection process means, first of all, quality control, Altbach and de Wit explain.

Publication quality control should be performed by the academic community itself. Research universities and professional societies should take more responsibility for the system. Above all, the peer review system should be strength­ened, the experts emphasize.

Meanwhile, the knowledge-distribution system has become overly commercialized. It is largely ‘regulated’ by external stakeholders, such as ranking agencies, various non-academic publishers, and experts in bibliometric  measurement.


Study authors:
Philip G. Altbach, Member of the HSE International Advisory Committee, Honorary Professor of HSE, founder of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College (USA)
Hans de Wit, Director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College
March 27