Blow the whistle!

I suppose no one should really have anything against the idea that there could be peer-reviewed journals where scholars could publish without getting their hands dirty by networking and just knowing the right people. And why not, as one indicator of research quality, our referee publications can be counted, and discussed together with citation indexes and the visible impact of the research. But making referee articles mechanically something which everybody should do whatever their discipline is cannot be criticized too much.

In many fields of research referee journals are not even considered worthy to talk about. Their impact can be even felt to be only negative, quite paradoxically, as people feel they’d have to publish in one though they don’t read any and though they don’t have respect for nearly any referee journal around. In many fields referee journals stand for anything else than impact, creativity, and possibilities for new thinking. In the long run this will be an unbearable situation, if we don’t tackle it somehow.

In Helsinki University this has already become some sort of farce. As an alumni I have a lot of contacts to Helsinki University, and everybody seems to be daily upset about the pressure to publish referee articles. At parties people laugh and cry about A1 and A2 publications, and it seems that those who comment on this are often the ones who are really passionate and non-compromising about their work. In some cases referee journals might of course drag you down when you are too far away from the community around us (yes, we know the dangers of being too absorbed by your own thoughts), but it sounds like there would be a danger that universities might in the future lose the most creative scholars to this new system where it is often more important to not make mistakes than to produce something new.

The problem has become an everyday issue for Aalto as well e.g. through the politics of the Finnish academy and some foundations which have mostly adopted their way of thinking about this from the Academy. While having referee articles as one of many indicators of quality for a whole university should not bother us, but if funding is too connected to this single factor, singular disciplines should be able to veto, and to present other methods for measuring quality. If referees simply are not having any considerable impact in what we talk about in e.g. European philosophy, artistic research, or, for example, in many schools of cultural semiotics, we just cannot take them as the base for quality control, if we are seriously for quality.

One problem with the issue in the field I am working with myself (art, philosophy of art, etc.) is that people are ideologically against all types of rankings and quality control, so although I have been sure that we will face this (I wrote an article about it already 2005:  “Ranking tulee – oletko valmis?” Hiidenkivi 2005: 4, pp15-17) and although I have many times said that we have to deal with it so why not deal intelligbly, everybody has always said that you cannot find 100% functional methods of quality control. But that’s not what it is about… It is about giving an option to rely upon something else than bare myths. Even the Shanghai, which I see as stupid to use in this school (as it is mostly about natural science), has broken some mythological auras which some universities which have classically been considered to be good have had. We need rankings to have more ways of discussing what is good and what is bad, and we need a lot of different systems, so that no system or narrative could become overtly dominating.

Well, to get back to business. What could we possibly add to the list of ways of doing quality control for research?

Here are some ideas:

– we don’t have an index but once in a while we see that someone has refered to our work – so why could we not (everyone, individually) collect these references to a database?

– it is not only technological innovations which are done in the ‘garage’ – so let’s list the best art journals and other publications from the ‘field’ if they really publish theoretical essays (there are still not many referee classics, most of the texts I hear discussion about are books or essays published in non-referee journals)

– when scholars are invited to be guest speakers somewhere (and preferably even so that someone pays their trip – in our school we see international activity too much as something which we have to pay for) it definitely tells something about their impact and that there is interest towards their work: shouldn’t this be listed?

More? I am sure that the list could easily be expanded, this was just for stimulation…