Tuesday 21 June 2011

Academic ethics under competition

Competition is all the rage. When properly set up it is supposed to channel the passions of self-interest via the mechanism of rivalry into increased performance that benefits everyone. The model was developed in sports and then applied to business (it is the essence of Adam Smith's invisible hand) and has now well and truly arrived in academia. Competition is usually evaluated in terms of  efficiency or, if you're lucky, justice, but here I want to focus on the harms that intense competition may do to the ethical character of individuals. In particular, how do the characteristic academic virtues of industriousness, honesty, and curiosity fare under competition?

First I should clarify. Virtues are first personal character traits. Honesty isn't about calculating the utilitarian odds of getting away with lying. Rather if you are honest you will think 'that would be a lie' is itself a good reason not to say it. But the virtues, like any other character traits, are developed over time in suitable circumstances. If the circumstances change, so will the nature of our interactions, the behaviours their incentives reinforce, the kind of people who succeed (and the kind who get sidelined), and the ethical standards and models we have available to learn from. As the Greeks used to say, "to live the good life one must live in a great city". So what kind of city is academia under competition?

Industriousness is concerned with the honouring of work as a sacred task. Success in the academy is concerned with publishing in A-journals, getting cited, getting research grants, getting tenure at high ranked universities, etc. One would expect that competition would spur people to work hard and produce a lot of research. And you would be right. Increasing competition in academia over the last decades, as  the number of doctorates rises while the number of career opportunities stagnates, has induced everyone below tenure rank to work long hours producing more research papers than ever before.

But the kind of productivity that is motivated by the urge to get ahead and achieve the rewards of competitive academic success is not necessarily concerned with honourable work. It encourages a strategic approach to research, for example chasing fashionable topics, publishing dozens of papers out of the same research, multiple authorship, or using tricks like writing short replies to established Big Shots to get into A-journals. Such strategic behaviour is easily normalised and internalised. As academics are increasingly disciplined by competitive institutions to maximise their h-index, the intrinsic commitment to their work is crowded out by their external incentives. Nowadays the only measure of the importance of what you're doing is the number of downloads and citations your papers get -  this is its value in the market for ideas. There is nothing deeper or more fundamental. Your judgement is no longer required.

But excessive competition doesn't only coerce via "Publish or perish!" If so it would actually be much easier to organise resistance to. Competition is also seductive, first because it is fun, second because it is convincing.

First, playing competitive games is exhilarating and addictive. Just as it is thrilling to win a foot race against a tight field, so it is to get a paper accepted by a high ranked journal with a 5% acceptance rate. One has not only the inner satisfaction of having achieved something difficult, but also the additional and often far more powerful pleasure of superiority that comes from knowing you did better than many other people.

Second, competition provides a particularly convincing crutch for self-assessment. Its standard is clear and attainable (grading on a curve) and so seems to provide an objective measure of excellence within an academic community. Of course it only seems so because truly objective standards are difficult to identify, and distinctly humbling to assess oneself against. Considering the true significance of your work requires a lot of solitary reflection and uncomfortable self-criticism, together with sufficient self-confidence in your judgement not to worry that your conclusions aren't understood or shared except by a handful of close peers. In contrast competitive success is relatively straightforward to measure: your h-index is the highest in the department, ergo you and everyone else (even strangers) know that you are the best! You have achieved 'excellence' status and may now strut about like a peacock and demand the office with the nicest view.

So academics work hard at whatever they think will meet the metrics for success. They go wherever the demand tells them, and choose topics for their life's work that are in fashion and so easy to publish on, rather than ones they are genuinely interested in or that have some claim to be socially beneficial or advance human knowledge in some significant respect. You know, work you can actually be proud of.
Honesty is about fairness, sincerity, and truthfulness. Competition endangers the virtue of honesty because it measures value by a narrow and arbitrary set of criteria that external spectators can easily assess - like citation counts. If the recognition and support of honesty isn't built into the assessment system, then to the extent that honesty decreases the chance of success, it will be selected out of the academic market.

In academic competition the system's means for recognising and rewarding honesty are weak, because academic ethics is still principally grounded in informal collegiate cosiness. Formal institutions like codes of ethics and reporting mechanisms are dysfunctional or absent, while even peer-review is fairly powerless to detect deliberate cheating. The burden of maintaining academic integrity rests entirely on the robustness of the academic community's standards of what counts as fairness, truth, and sincerity. But unfortunately these are particularly vulnerable to the effects of intense competition.

First there is a selection effect. When individuals are set up to race against each other for success they are implicitly instructed to perceive situations and act only in their own interests. Then ethical gamesmanship becomes a dominant strategy: whatever other people do, it is always better for you to behave strategically (even though from the global perspective if everyone were honest the productivity of the system would be much higher). When everyone else is gaming the system, those non-conformists who have some intrinsic motivation to honesty - i.e. the virtue of honesty - go to the wall.

Second the very meaning of honesty changes. The academic community's standards of honesty melt away as every individual independently moves to the edge of what is currently considered acceptable and the net effect is to move the informal consensus in that direction. Under competition, academics have a great deal of incentives to find a publishable result. Who cares what the research really found? If you did lots of work you 'deserve' to get a publication out of it. As a result tactics of  'gamesmanship', like statistical significance chasing in the social sciences, come to be seen as normal practise, as 'honest' reseach. The big shots do it because it's the only way to keep publishing enough papers, and they provide exemplars of the new standards of honesty to the rest of the community, and especially to young scholars just getting started.

So reviewers reject their rivals' papers. So your department head gets his name on your paper as a co-author when he never even looked at it. The end result can already be seen in some subjects: medical researchers taking big cheques from Big Pharma to publish ghost articles under their name in journals that are themselves bought and paid for by pharma.

Curiosity is about following the question where it takes you, even if that means crossing disciplinary boundaries. Competition kills curiosity because it focuses all your attention and energy on arbitrary aims, and disciplines inefficient deviations from that pursuit (such as norms of honesty). As in sports. Sports aren't supposed to produce anything but competition, but competition in academia (like competition in business) is supposed to produce something that is valuable: wisdom. Surrendering too far to the competitive dimension reduces the ability of academia to produce anything else but competition.

If you lost your keys at night, would it be sensible to search for them only under the street lights where you can see? Of course not, but that is the logic that competition enforces on academia. It produces a great many experts on particular sub-disciplines, but they are constitutionally unable to step outside their specialism. All they are able to do is parrot the dogmas and factoids of their little kingdoms. And from a certain competitive status perspective that makes perfect sense. An expert in this system is someone who doesn't want to learn anything new, because that would mean they wouldn't be an expert anymore.

Nor is it clear that these ultra-specialists have even properly understood the basic concepts of their fields. The lack of curiosity causes intellectual superficiality as well as narrowness. We have economists who cannot even apply the most basic economic principles like opportunity cost and cost-benefit analysis to mundane problems; natural scientists who believe global climate change is a conspiracy; etc. Even in philosophy specialisation has wreaked havoc. Wittgenstein said that "The real discovery is the one which enables me to stop doing philosophy when I want to." But I meet plenty of philosophers who are quite able to stop being philosophers as soon as they look up from their desk (though the spirit of pettifogging pedantry is more entrenched). Who can really be surprised that ethicists aren't good at acting on the principles they espouse in their publications?

The same basic story can be told anywhere competition is intense, whether in sports, politics, business, or whatever, though the virtues of central concern might differ in each case. An extreme focus on winning narrows and distorts the focus of competitors to the detriment both of their ethical character and to the character of their community and institutions.

This is not only bad for individuals. It also undermines the very argument for encouraging something as unpleasant as competition in the first place. As the excellent philosopher of economics, Joseph Heath, has argued, much moral theory is concerned in one way or another with promoting cooperation (Golden Rules, etc), but competition is by definition non-cooperative and thus something of an moral puzzle. Competitors are instructed not to cooperate, and many forms of cooperation are characterised as unethical (and often illegal, as in sports or business). You are not supposed to feel empathy for the team you are beating 5-0 in soccer, or for employees of the firm you beat for a contract who will soon be unemployed. You are not supposed to act according to maxims you could universalise, nor even to act towards others as you would like others to act towards you. This unusual state of affairs can be justified by the efficiency of competition in producing things society has reason to value, like opulence, sporting spectacle, or in the case of academia, wisdom.

Moderate competition can have salutary effects on academics, with their job security and cosy collegiate self-assessment. It can indeed generate more and better work that is of benefit to humanity as a whole.  But the drive for ever more competition in this domain undermines the virtues upon which the productivity of the whole system ultimately depends. Under intense competition, appearance triumphs over reality in the eyes of the competitors. The appearance of success (winning publishing games) is conflated with real success (producing wisdom). The academic game could easily go on forever (as long as society is willing to pay for it) but the more seriously the players take the game dimension, the less seriously they will take the wisdom dimension, and the benefits to humanity that competition was supposed to produce will fail to appear.