The Rise of the Trump Academic

Image: Delfi de la Rua

Monday 19th September, 2016

Liz Morrish

A recent post by Mark Carrigan caught my imagination, about ‘networking’ with its usual connotations of “insincerity, instrumentalism and general creepiness”. We can all recognise the ambitious researcher at the conference who is anxious to advertise their own work while affecting interest in the keynote speaker’s presentation. It resonates with my current work on academic self-promotion via university profile pages. And I start to wonder, is a new academic habitus beginning to emerge?

There are a lot of incentives for a young academic to develop chameleon-like characteristics. In an era when many are forced to spend years on short term, casualized contracts, your advancement increasingly depends on accumulating the right kind of academic accolades. I refer to this as the ‘Bisto kid’ approach, whereby you learn to sniff the air and follow the smell of money, because money now equates to academic regard. Pursuing grants will be your ticket to a permanent job, time for research and access to international conferences. Without it, you may be left alone with your passion and originality to generate an unfunded, and therefore marginalised, research program.

The consequences for academic freedom have been obvious for some time, but other problems are now starting to become apparent, particularly in the sciences. There have been an unsettling series of stories on the same theme in the Times Higher and in the blogosphere recently.

A study conducted in the UK and Australia indicates that academics regularly lie to inflate the predicted impact of their research. One professor in Australia is quoted as saying “It’s really virtually impossible to write an ARC (Australian Research Council) grant now without lying.” It is harsh to condemn these colleagues when you consider the ludicrous necessity of fabricating an impact statement. By definition, if the work has yet to be done, there can be no confident claims of either results or significance. The scientific community has collectively decided to acknowledge that if everybody knows it is absurd, then there is no moral hazard to trouble their consciences.

Two more significant issues have been discussed by Dorothy Bishop in her blog “There is a reproducibility crisis in psychology and we need to act on it”. If other scholars cannot reproduce the results of psychology experiments, this means the discipline has a problem which needs to be addressed, she argues. The other, related, problem is also methodological; “the phenomenon of p-hacking - selecting experimental data after doing the statistics to ensure a p-value below the conventional cutoff of 0.05." See also Nuzzo on p-values and reproducibility concerns. P-hacking is recognised as one reason for poor reproducibility of scientific findings, and the phenomenon is well explained for the non-scientist by David Colquhoun here.

Meanwhile, a number of academics are detecting an apparent bias towards positive results operated by journals in publication of scientific work. Simon Hatcher asks “Is something rotten in the state of academia?” and explains, “The need arises out of intense competition between Universities to compete for funding and for journals to publish the latest breakthroughs”, and he offers this insight into why this effect has arisen, “It increasingly seems that journals value themselves not by the quality of what they publish but by whether it is picked up on social or mainstream media. As a result negative studies are much less likely to be published.”

Equally, in a world where academics are obliged to offer up each piece of work to be evaluated as internationally significant, world leading etc., they will seek to signal such a rating discursively. A study by Vinkers et al. in the British Medical Journal uncovered a new tendency towards hyperbole in scientific reports. They found the absolute frequency of positive words increased from 2.0% (1974-80) to 17.5% (2014), which amounts to a relative increase of 880% over four decades. 25 individual positive words contributed to the increase, particularly the words “robust,” “novel,” “innovative,” and “unprecedented,” which increased in relative frequency up to 15 000%”). The authors comment upon an apparent evolution in scientific writing to ‘look on the bright side of life’.

It is rather more than that, though. This behaviour of extolling banal results is what is more commonly called ‘gaming the system’, and it is clearly being learned young. Tim Birkhead narrates an encounter with undergraduate students which opened his eyes to some disturbing attitudes:

Here’s a tiny but telling example of what we are now faced with. At the end of a recent seminar I presented on scientific misconduct, I asked the audience whether they knew anyone who had fabricated data for their final-year undergraduate project. Eighty per cent said yes. My jaw dropped and the expression on my face must have shocked the students since one of them came up to me and, touching my arm, said: “Tim, don’t be upset, we wouldn’t do this if it was real science.” This attempted reassurance only plunged me further into despair. I probed a little deeper and asked the students why they felt it was acceptable to fabricate data in a teaching context, but not in a “genuine” scientific investigation?

Xenia Schmaltz fast-forwards to the next stage of a young scientist’s career, when she questions “Good scientist or a successful academic? You can’t be both”. She encapsulates some of the contradictions in a simple table.

Photo: Source: @SciPubLab/Twitter

The behaviours on the left are those necessary for academic integrity, while those on the right may lead to academic preferment. Birkhead blames a culture that pressures academics into quantity and speed of publication, competition and league tables, a confirmation bias, a pursuit of safe science which might win scarce grant money, and the need to specify ‘impact’ before the work is even done. David Graeber writes, “If you want to minimize the possibility of unexpected breakthroughs, tell those same people they will receive no resources at all unless they spend the bulk of their time competing against each other to convince you they know in advance what they are going to discover”.

It is not just our research which we must ‘sell’. We sell new courses, conference, institutes, grant proposals, and, as I am finding, our academic selves on social media platforms such as LinkedIn, Academia.edu or ResearchGate. The self-promoting academic has emerged hand-in-hand with the marketization of universities, so that now, the X Factor could be the next model for filling university jobs. Indeed, Jack Grove reports on a selection procedure for a postdoctoral position in a The University of Calgary’s medical school in which interviews were streamed to a live audience of 70 early career scientists who voted with 90% agreement for the same candidate.

The point of the Calgary exercise (see the original study) was to make the trainees more self-critical when showcasing their own skills, but it seems likely that such structures will produce a particularly narcissistic graduate, as this study seems to predict.

Examining traits of undergraduate business studies students, the authors found more narcissistic students “thrived” with similarly self-obsessed instructors. These latter seemed to act as role models to the former, further legitimising their behaviour. By contrast, less narcissistic students did not thrive with the narcissistic faculty. Matthews’ article in the Times Higher asks: “As millennials enter the faculty ranks, will they be disproportionately narcissistic?”.

It is unfair to ascribe this behaviour to millennials. Academia, often portrayed as the home of eccentric loners, has always had its share of self-important grandstanders. But current inducements are giving rise to a new phenomenon of the Trump Academic. Rather like The Donald, who is prepared to jettison previous party affiliations and beliefs in order to reinvent himself as the creation of Republican intolerance and bigotry, the Trump Academic will gladly set aside scientific passion or originality in favour of safe and fundable research. Their boastful certainties, unanchored in the truth, might allow the suppression of a negative result, or the inflation of some calculations to reach a threshold of significance. They may switch paradigms entirely in order to run with the popular crowd.

If you haven’t yet met the Trump Academic, you should probably get out more. Increasingly they will be hard to miss as the motivations coalesce around work which pleases governments, university managers and students. Now, even a permanent contract cannot guarantee the indulgence of ethical behaviour and academic freedom.

Tressie McMillan Cottom writes of the rarity of great genius. When indisputable talent evaporates, all that is left is ‘the hustle’.

The more that regimes of top-down interference chip away at academic authenticity and integrity, the further we are from that perennial pretension of ‘excellence’. We risk becoming a profession of self-regarding hustlers, changing our game plan at each new behest from above. Let’s count them: contract renewal, tenure, promotion, student evaluations, research selectivity, impact, employability. I was reminded of a recent article in The Guardian, a profile of former Chief Inspector of Prisons, Nick Hardwick, who, on leaving the post said, “You shouldn’t do this job for too long because you get used to things you shouldn’t get used to”.

I hope those early-career researchers in Calgary aren’t saying that in ten years’ time.

Liz Morrish blogs at Academic Irregularities and tweets at @lizmorrish

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