Academia, Capitalism and Bibliometrics

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Many of the ideas/ concepts within academic scholarship are quite simple, however, they are often dressed up in quite complex discourses. This paper aims to reduce Cronin’s article to its more basic ideas and to then assess the validity and relevance of these. It is interesting that the article is framed by the title ‘Symbolic Capitalism’ and yet Cronin never makes explicit reference to the capitalist contradictions inherent in scholarship. All capitalism, no matter what tag or label you add to it, is concerned with a monetary system. Academics cannot claim to be interested only in collecting symbolic status because this status inevitably leads to greater monetary gain. Bibliometrics in this sense is an extension of a longstanding hierarchal system of the ‘economy of attention’ within academia in which politics overshadows the search for truth. Furthermore, Cronin’s semiotic approach cannot really add much value to the debate until he moves it more fully into a promotion of Open Access and Open Source modes of publishing.

Cronin is essentially attempting to validate the value of bibliometrics and citation indexes in assessing the significance of scholarship. It is for this reason that he draws a distinction between “enduring scholarly impact […] and, on the other hand, web-based measures of ‘transient group interest’”. The idea that citation and referencing provides a more relevant account of a scholar’s status than his/her media celebrity is accurate, however, there is no doubt that the two are deeply connected. Scholars sit in university chairs, but they also do consultation work across a wide spectrum of public and private enterprises. They sit on funding allocation committees, on external examining boards, on the boards of private companies and government advisories. They accumulate a media profile in much the same was as they do through bibliometrics and the one informs the other. Those academics at the top of their fields do hold quite a lot of influence over the career trajectory of those who are just entering the hierarchy. Citation in this sense then does not take place on the actual merit of scholarship, but on the necessity to network by acknowledging the work of those academics that might become influential in work being funded, published and promoted.

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The real contribution that Cronin’s article makes is in his semiotic approach to understanding citation and referencing. He suggests that citations act as signposts within a discipline to authoritative and meaningful scholarship referring to citations as “frozen footprints in the landscape of scholarly achievements.” This is drawn from Saussure’s structuralist approach to linguistics in that, like Saussure, Cronin views language as stable and static as in the structuralist tradition. Following on from this approach, Cronin can argue that citations retain ‘enduring’ characteristics in that they are quantitative in culture building. The problem here is that structuralist models were quickly replaced by post-structuralist principles within which language is no loner seen as permanent, rather, language is seen as dispersive and highly manipulatable. Or more metaphorically speaking, seasons change and alter the shape of those ‘frozen footprints’ if not melting them altogether. The Structuralist approach suits Cronin’s purpose in that he views academia as a closed off community in which cultural norms and significances are established by the participants. However, the politics of academia as mentioned above is one driven by capitalist gain in which citation indexes become a more globalized form of academic hierarchy. This happens because bibliometrics does not change the politics. A young scholar cannot get published within his/her discipline if they write a paper that does not reference the hierarchy of that discipline. Why? Simply because that work will be considered incomplete by the hierarchy itself. Structuralism will tell us that consistent referencing and citation leads to more authority in assessing an author’s contribution to a discipline. But post-structuralism will be highly suspicious of this word-game in that language becomes a tool of hierarchal control over a discipline to allow established scholars earn more money. Culture then is simply a construct of hierarchy.

In this sense, it does not really matter how Cronin dresses up bibliometrics in semiotic garb. It may add to the ways in which citations and references produce meaning, but only insofar as this meaning is retained within a closed academic framework. But of course, Cronin is acutely aware of this closed community and, in fact, supports it. He acknowledges that bibliometrics is playing a role in commodifying academia and that academia has always been a commodity. He goes so far as to compare scholarship citations to the stock exchange. It is in this sense that he draws on Stanley Fish’s idea of ‘interpretative communities’. Fish in particular relies on a kind of ‘ganging up’ in forming community. His theory posits that readers do come to a consensus about what texts mean. However, this consensus is often dictated by those within a hierarchy that wield more power. This issue is even more acute within a closed community group such as an academic discipline community within which scholars are clamoring for university chairs and research funding, and now, positions on citation indexes. In actual fact, Cronin’s use of Reader-response is antithetical to his structuralist approach. Fish is indeed a Reader-response proponent, but Reader-response theory is itself a highly dispersed field of study with often contradictory ideas contained within it. Cronin’s use of the term is far too general to be meaningful. In any case, Fish’s ‘interpretative communities’ don’t adapt very well to academia. This is because it is extremely difficult for those outside of academia to become contributors to meaning within it and the core tenet of reader-response is that more readers build greater consensus. This is because of the inaccessibility to academic scholarship and journals. These are expensive to access and are usually only subscribed to by interested bodies such as universities and research institutes. In order for, say, an internet blogger to enter the debate, they would have to somehow gain access to scholarship. A subscription to just one discipline in Jstor, for example, costs more than $6000 per year. And Jstor is only one of very many journals.

Finally, the structuralist approach adopted by Cronin, coupled with reader-response theory does allow Cronin to open up a new way of assessing and conceptualizing the validity of citation and referencing indexes. However, his essay really only moves to reassert the status quo within a hierarchal academic system. I believe that an adoption of post-structuralist theories, coupled with a move towards Open Access and Open Source scholarship is the only way of achieving scholarly work and a bibliometrics that is truly meaningful based on the merits of the work and not its political/ monetary motives. But this idea would not work within Cronin’s framework of ‘Symbolic Capitalism’ because it would deny direct monetary reward for academic scholarship and would open scholarship up to a new world of scholars that exist outside of the university/ research system, thus dispersing homogenous hierarchal systems and allowing real innovation to emerge through new contexts. This is self-evident in Cronin’s essay because his work is written for a traditional academic audience who might not be so quick to read it if it had put forward a pro-open access argument. I believe maintaining the status quo is one reason why scholars are quick to distinguish the ‘impact’ of altmetrics from the more ‘enduring’ effect of bibliometrics.

[Perhaps we should cease citing and referencing altogether, as a protest against ‘Academic Capitalism’]

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