Ranking, awarding …

…reviewed from a very different corner

A spectre is haunting academia: the specter of competition – having politicians, who want to instrumentalise science, as their mouthpiece – for instance recently the Hungarian government came up with a strangulating funding scheme

and surely many other countries may be added.

Another instrument of the specter is the use of various schemes of ranking, awarding and the like …There are different dimensions of policies that are tightly strangulating what may be called “freedom of academia”

(may be called so, as this terminology had been abused by conservative and reactionary politicians in Germany against the student movement end of the 1960s (see Hans-Abrecht Koch: Professorale Selbstbehauptung in turbulenter Zeit; see also 
Review of Nikolai Wehrs, Protest der Professoren. Der «Bund Freiheit der Wissenschaft» in den 1970er Jahren
Alessandro Stoppoloni (in Italian); also: 
Martina Steber: Die Hüter der Begriffe. Politische Sprachen des Konservativen in Großbritannien und der Bundesrepublik Deutschland, 1945-1980 – available via liegen.io)

One aspect came to my mind when reading an article titled
CAN AN ALGORITHM WRITE A BETTER NEWS STORY THAN A HUMAN REPORTER?, written by Steven Levy. Two passages caught my special attention: 

Hammond was recently asked for his reaction to a prediction that a computer would win a Pulitzer Prize within 20 years. He disagreed. It would happen, he said, in five.

The other passage:

Last year at a small conference of journalists and technologists, I asked Hammond [Narrative Science’s CTO and cofounder, Kristian Hammond] to predict what percentage of news would be written by computers in 15 years. At first he tried to duck the question, but with some prodding he sighed and gave in: “More than 90 percent.

What actually is frightening of the following little story? Sure, for many the outlook of loosing their employment but we may consider that today’s standards – such as the Pulitzer Prize and many others – aren’t as noble as so many ranking-fed moneybags propose. Again, many things to be said and discussed, though for the moment only one, quoting Felix Stalder:

“iUsers are only able to evaluate search results pragmatically; that is, in light of whether or not they are helpful in solving a concrete problem. In this regard, it is not paramount that they find the best solution or the correct answer but rather one that is available and sufficient.”

Estratto di: Stalder, Felix. “The Digital Condition.” Polity Press, 2018

Indeed, everybody gets the Prize he or she deserves – it also means that at some stage the winning material will be self-assessed by an algorithm (a step further than the currently already ‘automated review’) by – finally that would be the ‘peer’ for the review. Anything new? May be, but may be not so much. Rancière, writing about post-democracy, states that it

is the government practice and conceptual legitimization of a democracy after the demos, a democracy that has eliminated the appearance, miscount and dispute of the people.

Just in time – and one could say: time does actually not matter. One of “my” universities sent a newsletter today – via e-mail, may be that this is the reason for calling it ‘connection’. It is arriving from one of the Chinese universities I worked at, ne of the headlines reading (in the section Education)

Nobel Prize Inspiration Initiative kicks off at … with Michael Young

right away followed by an article titled

… establishes International Business School

Now I dare to wonder to which extent revolutions, also and perhaps especially in science are initiated by a spark, a genius – often not (easily) understood, daring to make a step further – nit fearing being possibly wrong … – of course, this is a slippery field. We in China and we protestants in Europe know, for different reasons:
it is all about working hard
– in the east to serve society, in the west to build a house, plant a tree and have a sun (so the sayings go, standards set for male). And it is – nolens volens – working in society, being, existing , living in society and (as Marx stated) even individualising in society. And still there is this moment of genius – not only needed to be awarded any of these high ranking symbols but being awarded by some form and degree of independence. One does not have to agree with Kant in all the facets, one can laugh about his habits – but one has to accept the challenge he out in front of each of us: consciously living, accepting responsibility, only with this being able to go beyond the Kantian individualism, and doing what we do: making our own history, even if we have to accept that we do not do it entirely according to our own ‘simple individual will’.

Such awards make only sense if this is acknowledged and academic work does not degenerate to mere International Business …

The latter is exactly what we see with the entire reviewing, and new attitudes to awarding – at least as danger of the massification of ranked publishing: mass, numbers, formal perfection counts – quality control as engaged dispute amongst peers is replaced by checking the reflection of formal coherence – relativity in terms of E = M2cannot be seen, and Schroedinger’s cat will be known as dead or alive, no option for the beast to be … really Schroedinger’s cat.

Another issue with reviews – algorithmised or not, or another expression: Finally any reviewer – human or not – can only review what is familiar.

The divine day in-day out

Or it is about resistance

and getting engaged in debates …we, each of us, has to decide


Cages of Gods

The following from Montaigne’s essay may also make us think about academia and the life in what is called academic world:

It happens as with cages: the birds without despair to get in, and those within despair of getting out.
Book III, Ch. 5. Upon some Verses of Virgil
Arts and sciences are not cast in a mould, but are formed and perfected by degrees, by often handling and polishing, as bears leisurely lick their cubs into form.
Book II, Ch. 12. Apology for Raimond Sebond
Man is certainly stark mad; he cannot make a worm, and yet he will be making gods by dozens.
Book II, Ch. 12. Apology for Raimond Sebond
For the Image:

Democracy – Freedom of Research

While in Turkey harshest measures can be found against academics and it is a witch-hunt like atmosphere, calls for  the Support of Turkish academics being answered with even more severe punishment, while there is the ongoing debate on the problems of socio-economic security for academics, another, more subtle, aspect should not be forgotten, linked to the ranking systems:

Fearing for their budgets, rectors responded with both carrots and sticks. A few weeks before the submission deadline, the CRUI announced a “university spring day”, on which every campus would hold a debate about the problems facing Italian universities. Meanwhile, Pisa suspended all planned appointments, promotions and payment of research expenses until the effect of the boycott on its budget is ascertained. And the University of Pavia announced that future resources would be distributed to departments on the basis of their VQR results: hence, fewer protesters means more resources.

An interesting way of strangulating democracy is shown  where

Academics in Italy have boycotted assessment

and the questions is

What has it achieved?