Wednesday, August 23, 2017

A Publication Milestone … and a Puzzle to Mind

By Kai Chan

A couple weeks ago, my 100th paper or chapter was published in the peer-reviewed literature. Why do I feel so contorted?
Kai, contorted, right from the beginning
of my time at UBC (and not always
happy about it!).

The short answer is that this milestone provoked a realization that I’m getting sucked in to a pursuit about which I am deeply ambivalent.
On the one hand, I believe strongly in the value of peer-reviewed publications as a means of fostering crucial learning towards a deeper and broader understanding of life on Earth and how we can sustain it along with human prosperity. When I’m interviewing prospective students to ensure a good fit between us, we talk about the purpose of academic publications. It’s certainly not a perfect system, but I know of no better way to contribute rigorously and reliably to the body of knowledge upon which human society fundamentally depends. If we’re doing research and scholarship that addresses important problems, we should do it with reference to what others have found—acknowledging explicitly how our research builds upon many important contributions from others. It seems fitting and important, then, to also contribute our learning back to that body of literature.
In those same conversations with prospective students, we also discuss the pitfalls of publication-motivated research. It’s a classic case of Goodhart’s Law, where the metrics of academic publishing (the h-index, i-index, impact factors, etc.) have become the targets of an academic career, thus somewhat perverting their utility. These metrics certainly capture some elements of excellence and of scholarship’s contribution to society’s needs. For instance, I’m proud of the role some of my best-cited papers with Terre Satterfield and others (e.g., this one) have played in helping enrich the dialog about culture and values regarding ecosystem services and the environment. But other papers of mine seem to get cited well despite much smaller roles in effecting change.
So success by metrics is not the success I seek. There are plenty of ways to pervert these proxies of academic contribution, for example by realizing success through the h-index, etc., but not achieving true success in advancing and disseminating needed knowledge. There are also endeavours that contribute crucially to society’s knowledge and use of this knowledge, but that yield little progress by these metrics. Much science engagement (public and policy outreach) goes unrecognized that way—more on that to come in future posts.
Those conversations with prospective students usually conclude with an asserted interest in publishing but also in guarding against Goodhart’s Law. My students and I are all committed to a reflective pursuit of academic success that also includes those activities that are important but not necessarily rewarded academically (e.g., engaging with policy makers, writing policy briefs and op-eds, joining environmental and social justice advocacy groups).
After more than a dozen papers published already this year, it seems pretty clear that I’m spending a lot of my time publishing and not nearly enough on my other sustainability-science passions, including CoSphere (a Community of Small-Planet Heroes …, to make it easy to have net-positive impacts on nature).
In my defence, this distribution of time is not a result of my making decisions in a vacuum to write papers and more papers. Every paper and chapter this year except one was led by others, generally my students and postdocs, who need these papers as markers of their excellence. Even the paper and chapter that I did lead were in close partnership with my students and postdocs, and I hope they will serve them well (both are also intended to advance CoSphere). But regardless of how I got to this point, it remains the case that I am spending so much time on the papers themselves that I have little time for CoSphere, or those other engagement activities.
I suspect I’m not the only one feeling this way. From our recent Global Young Academy survey (just submitted) and various conversations, I know that many of us are strongly motivated to ‘better the world’ through our science and engagement. But it seems that despite that motivation, a litany of invisible or barely visible norms and pressures are thwarting these good intentions—at least somewhat—and leading me and my colleagues to spend more time than we might easily justify on the pursuit of metrics of personal acclaim. (It’s clearly different for those seeking to get academic jobs or tenure, who have to play by the rules of the game—but as a full professor, that justification doesn’t apply to me.)
I don’t have any magic solutions, but for myself, I’m going to seek to right my course somewhat by diving into a highly practical applied sabbatical in 2018-9, perhaps in the seat of Canada’s national government.
How about you? Do you feel any unease about your relationship with publishing? Or not? Have you managed to align your passions with your actions? If so, please share your insights—for our sakes!