A Closed Loop?: Inclusion and Exclusion in Academic Research

I’ve written before about studies that have investigated the process of peer review – the system by which researchers assess the quality of each other’s work. The results of some of those studies suggest that a process that is supposed to be neutral and anonymous is anything but. Now there is a new study of research published in peer-reviewed academic journals that suggests journal articles may play a role in maintaining power and resource imbalances between universities and researchers.

The article, by Chad Wellmon of the University of Virginia and Andrew Piper of McGill University, will be published soon in the journal Critical Inquiry. Wellmon and Piper point out that having research published in academic journals is becoming more important for researchers and for universities – because, unlike other outputs of academic activity (such as more knowledgeable students), published research can easily be measured. It can be measured, for example, by the number of journal articles that each researcher produces, that an area or department produces, or that the university as a whole produces. That’s significant when universities and the post-secondary education system as a whole are increasingly expected to function like businesses, with outputs that can be quantified and compared.

Wellmon and Piper created a database of information from 45 years of publications in four major academic journals in the humanities. The disciplines in the humanities include literature, history, philosophy, and the performing arts; the data include publications between 1969 and 2015. The database lists the authors of each article, the university the authors were affiliated with, the gender of the authors, and the university that each author got his or her Ph.D. from. Wellmon and Piper then looked for trends across time in how often authors from or graduates of particular schools published research in those four journals.

First, in relation to the schools that the researchers graduated from, Wellmon and Piper found that authors from only 20% of the Ph.D.-granting institutions in their data produced 86% of the articles published in those 45 years. Authors who graduated from ten of those schools wrote just over 50% of all of those articles, and authors who graduated from Yale or Harvard wrote 20% of those articles.

Then Wellmon and Piper looked at the schools that the researchers were working at when they published their articles. The numbers were slightly different but the trends were the same. Researchers at the top 20% of universities produced more than 80% of the articles, but researchers at the top 10 universities wrote 31% of the articles.

Then Wellmon and Piper looked at the gender of the article authors. Before 2004, only one of the four journals had only two years when more than 50% of article authors were female. After that, two of the journals had at least four years when there were 50% or more female authors. But the other two journals never had a single year where the number of female authors was at least equal to the number of male authors. (More female university professors work in the humanities than in other academic subjects, so these imbalances can’t easily be attributed to a lack of female researchers in the humanities.) For the sake of comparison, Wellmon and Piper calculated the percentages of female authors from 2010 to 2015 in 16 other humanities journals. They found that these percentages of female authors published each year in those journals ranged from a high of 59.3% to a low of 20% – suggesting that the dominance of male authors they discovered in their original data was not a fluke.

It could be that researchers at those top institutions are incredibly productive, and it’s not unreasonable to think that there is probably a lot of institutional pressure on those researchers to write and publish journal articles. But Wellmon and Piper suggest that there may be a systemic problem when that much of the research that is considered worthy of publication is coming from a relatively small group of universities. In their words, “[t]he observed hierarchies are so pronounced that it would be naive to assume that elite universities are disproportionately better at filtering knowledge than all other universities” (p. 18). They also suggest that this system is somewhat self-perpetuating, in that the top-producing universities are hiring Ph.D. graduates from the other top-producing universities. They see this cycle as creating a “system of patronage and cultural capital”. And this system hasn’t disappeared even with the creation of new means of knowledge distribution, such as digital publishing, which are supposed to be more equitable and accessible.

While these issues may seem irrelevant outside post-secondary education – they aren’t. As the phenomenon of “fake news” has shown, who produces knowledge and who controls where it goes can have major impacts on how our societies function. If a small self-perpetuating group of researchers are perceived to be producing the “best” research – for, apparently, no reason other than their gender and/or their university – that has very serious implications. It affects whose research is considered credible, who gets the resources to start or continue new research, and who gets to participate in creating knowledge.

And, in a world where universities’ “product” is expected to be measurable, when researchers at certain schools or of a particular gender have a better chance of achieving measurable outputs, that disadvantages researchers who might be producing equally important results but who don’t fit those characteristics. It may not be a difference as extreme as the economic differences between the 1% and the 99%, but it’s a difference that should not be ignored. It will be interesting to see if Wellmon and Piper’s findings have any effect on breaking down that difference.

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