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

Annunci

alternative reading

Recently I had been proofreading an article I wrote, looking at

The Particular and the Universal – Indigenous Sports for the Integrity of the Global Village

Though too often this work is the annoying part – but in this case I actually enjoyed it, thinking that there could be other criteria for peer reviewing etc.

  • How often does one interrupt reading to thing, reflect deeply on what had been written
  • How often does one detect connections that are unusual, though showing uo as being interesting
  • How often does one find new knowledge instead of new information confirming what one knows
  • How often is something written with which one does not agree, while one feels nevertheless stimulated by it and is provoked to think about the own ideas and the own standard arguments
  • Is there anything in the text that really provokes looking something up in order to gain some deeper insight, especially is there any “strange cat” – equally alive and dead – mentioned: something that one may have vaguely come across but one is now keen to recap, or study more in detail though it has nothing to do with one’s usual focus (e.g. Schroedinger’s cat – if it is alive of dead is not centrally a matter of [animal] welfare but still may of interest for everybody)

Recently, after having given a presentation, I received a mail by the Dean who was actually hosting the event, He said

…. I thought about a few explanations you shared with us. Nice job. Inspiring …

Leaving aside that there had been some interesting discussion at the end, a line as the one quoted may be the “highest praise” one can get after giving a presentation or writing something. A kind of “slow listening”.

For journal reviews (and reading, of course), it may be good to revisit the usual “comments to the editor”/”comments to the author”.

I remember once about an author, let’s call her A. A’s submission to a journal had been rejected by the review (anonymised process on all sides). The reason, brought forward:

The author did not make any reference to the work that had been undertaken by A.

Again, mind, the reviewer did not know that A had been actually the author of the reviewed article.

And the moral of an amoral academia: Never say anything new, always repeat what you said … – with a wee bit of change, possible just put in the new data: instead of 2xyz, the new article has the data of 2xyz+5. Interesting …

… to the point …

Well, you may say I am burning in the Heraclitean Fire, carried away and not doing what the academic world-order asks me to do – moving on with the metaphor, one may add: this little bit of disobedience is like playing with fire, a dangerous not to say: life threatening game.

So to the point, reading Erwin Chargaff’s

Heraclitean Fire: Sketches from a Life Before Nature.

He refers on page 171 to another work by himself**, which he wrote earlier and where he contended:

The fashion of our times favors dogmas. Since a dogma is something that everybody is expected to accept, this has led to the incredible monotony of our journals. Very often it is sufficient for me to read the title of a paper in order to reconstruct its summary and even some of the graphs. Most of these papers are very competent; they use the same techniques and arrive at the same results. This is then called the confirmation of a scientific fact. Every few years the techniques change; and then everybody will use the new techniques and confirm a new set of facts. This is called the progress of science. Whatever originality there may be must be hidden in the crevices of an all-embracing conventional makeshift: a huge kitchen midden in which the successive layers of scientific habitation will be dated easily through the various apparatuses and devices and tricks, and even more through the several concepts and terms and slogans, that were fashionable at a given moment.

Chargaff’s book had been published in 1978, he was, as widely known, professor in biochemistry, he emigrated from fascist Germany … – and one may ask if it is purely by accident that with this background already

[a]s early as 1949, this eminent scientist described certain irregularities in the composition of DNA and formulated the concept of ‘complementarity’ – later referred to as ‘Chrgaff’s rule’ and still later as ‘base pairing’ – which was the most important single piece of evidence for the double-helical structure of DNA’ [from the book-cover blurb].

‘Back to the fire’ – what he states, looking at methods, can cum grains salis also said for today and social science: where ‘methodology’ chapters in theses too often present methods, not showing any awareness of the difference between method and methodology, where publications and universities and people are ranked on the basis of algorithms and where entities are cut into pieces, making us forget the following:

The insufficiency of all biological experimentation, when confronted with the vastness of life, is often considered to be redeemed by recourse to a firm methodology. But definite procedures presuppose highly limited objects; and the supremacy of “method” has led to what could be called by an excellent neo-German term the Kleinkariertheit (piddling pedantry) of much present-day biological research. The availability of a large number of established methods serves, in fact, in modern science often as a surrogate of thought. Many researchers now apply methods whose rationale they do not understand. [170]

*****

End of term, and of the academic year – students, sometimes inviting lecturers, celebrating; preparing for holidays, but also asking for references, preparing the next career moves.

I have to admit, I am am happy that some say they did not ‘invite me to their celebration’ but invited me ‘to celebrate with them’; and I also have to admit that it is an honour to be seen by some as 老师, as lǎoshī – a bit like the hojam as we use it at ODTU in Ankara.

An unwritten chapter for the

Diary from a Journey into another World: Diaries against nationalism, inspired by trying to overcome personal resentments

to be closed.

======

** Chargaff, E. 1965. On Some of the Biological Consequences of Base-pairing in the Nucleic Acids. In: M.D. Anderson (Ed.), Developmentn.l and Metabolic Control Mechanisms and Neoplasw. Baltimore: Williams and Wilkins, p. 19.

 

 

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?

Why does a Professor have to be treated like that? One of my colleagues here at the College whom I told my story looked at me, there was a silence, …

Publish and perish at Imperial College London: the death of Stefan Grimm

Shocking — the story itself; and that in so many ways we accept it, refrain from massive resistance …

And even already little resistance bears harsh consequences …

if we then add those who retire at an early stage, looking for something else, working outside of academia etc., the picture is quite frightening …

Still, also One scholar’s crusade may matter, is at least necessary …