Whose priorities are we working for?
There’s a disconnect between “scholarly value” and how we reach specialized audiences who need our research.
Blog posts on issues related to scientific outreach have surged recently and have generated a great deal of discussion and debate on how to communicate research to the public (see for example “On outreach: Something’s got to give” by @Scicurious; and “Which came first, rewarding outreach or doing it?” by Kate Clancy). Advice offered by fellow academics that we find percolating on Twitter, in blogs or in newspapers are reminders of the downside of writing for these media. We are told that we “get points for high-profile publications. Points get you tenure.” Or we’re advised to “re-budget [your] time towards traditional research publications to build the strongest possible case for tenure,” or that “outreach work is a ‘stupid idea’ and a huge career mistake.”
I am tenured, but I find myself wanting to share something that has frustrated me since I have chosen (and was chosen for) this career path. Today, with all the discussion and initiatives about open access, about knowledge translation and mobilization, why is it that discussions about “impact” in discussions about performance appraisals, tenure and promotion, grant application appraisals and similar matters remain narrow-minded or even elitist?
I derive tremendous joy from sharing research-based pedagogical ideas with practitioners, whether it is through trade publications or speaking engagements. That I care a great deal about communicating my findings to the professional community may relate to the nature of my research, my professional work and my unshakable belief in the potential of research carried out by or with the involvement of practitioners.
For some academics, publications in professional outlets, blog spheres, or in journals that rank lower than “high-impact” ones are considered blemishes that weaken or add no value to one’s publication record. As H. Shema’s post “Understanding the Journal Impact Factor” stated, “The Journal Impact Factor (JIF) is considered an influential index to a journal’s quality, and publishing in high-impact journals is essential to a researcher’s academic career.” To those who believe that the JIF is a definitive measure of a researcher’s career, having articles published in non-high-impact journals conveys the academic’s lower quality of research and represents a poor use of time or failure to prioritize time to focus on scholarly work. Anyone who believes in, or reinforces the use and misuse of, JIFs should take heed of such articles as “Impacting Our Young,” in which three prominent figures in neuroscience (Marder, Kettenmann, and Grillner) declare that “placing too much emphasis on publication in high impact factor journals is a recipe for disaster,” as well as the rapid and significant attention that blog posts such as “Sick of Impact Factors” has generated.
Ever since my first language-teaching job in 1992, and continuing with my current work of training future language-teaching professionals and doing research related to second-language learning and teaching, I have never left my role as a practitioner teaching English-as-an-additional-language in a classroom. In most cases, I do this work on my own time and with my own financial resources (again not a “smart” use of time in some people’s eyes). This conscious decision stemmed from my conviction about the ways that teaching and research nourish and enrich each other, about the need to guard against doing research and discussing its pedagogical implications without walking in a teacher’s shoes, and about the importance of establishing connections between research and practice. My belief in research that improves teaching and learning practice and in carrying out research that has practical, meaningful pedagogical significance underlies the work that I have undertaken. This belief is the foundation for my publications and presentations, which are intended to appeal in a balanced way to both the research and professional communities.
Instead of acknowledging work that links research and practice through publications and presentations that reach language teachers and learners, I have been bluntly asked to change my priorities by focusing on publishing only in high-impact journals. This view contradicts the nature of my research work, and also conveys a narrow-mindedness about the definition of “knowledge mobilization” and about work that has value. During this year’s American Educational Research Association conference, attended by some 13,000 researchers and educators from 60 countries, AERA president Arnetha Ball raised the long-standing issue that research isn’t adopted by those who could benefit from it most. She spoke about how to bridge the knowledge-practice gap or the theory-practice divide. In reality, when an academic says that one should publish exclusively in top-tier publications (which, as we know well, are typically theory or research-oriented) or that publishing work in journals that aren’t high-impact unequivocally reflects the academic’s lower quality of research, such comments are parochial, uninformed and unconstructive.
If, for example, an article published by a non-open-access, highly regarded professional journal has been downloaded 12,956 times since its publication in 2010, that seems to indicate that this article is reaching its intended readers – whether or not that journal is deemed “high-impact.” So too, scholarly columns bridging research and practice that reach a broad professional community and are featured in trade publications with readership of 6,500 professionals in Canada alone, and book-length technical reports that had been subject to blind review by a panel of experts and shared through an open-access site are no less valuable or rigorous to the scholarly community than those published in top-tier journals. The important question is whether the nature of one’s work fits the priorities of a particular journal’s readership. As urged by Marder, Kettenmann, and Grillner, “Minimally, we must forgo using impact factors as a proxy for excellence and replace them with in-depth analyses of the science produced by candidates for position and grants.”
To promote community outreach beyond paying lip service, it’s time that we expand our definition of what constitutes contributions of “value” and stop judging each others’ work according to a narrow, simplistic definition of “impact.” At a minimum, we must thoughtfully consider the linkages between the nature of the research, its goals, and the community that the work is crafted to reach. If perceptions and attitudes about the outdated definition of what constitutes “success” in academia do not change, if academics do not stop looking down on those who communicate with practitioners and the general public, and if the words we use to criticize each other’s work continue to centre around a narrow, outdated definition of “impact,” then changing the way academia views outreach is going to take a very long time. And it won’t matter how much knowledge mobilization is discussed, or how many times the issue of bridging the knowledge-practice gap or theory-practice divide is raised. The publicly held perception that academics “have become experts at churning out research of questionable value” (Should Tenure for College Professors be Abolished?) will likely persist.
As mathematician Felix Klein said, “The greatest mathematicians, like Archimedes, Newton, and Gauss, always united theory and applications in equal measure.” Does emphasizing the kinds of work that are meaningful and directly relevant to end users – in my case, to language teachers and learners – make our work less valuable? Less valuable to whom? As Clancy said in her blog post, “It’s about redefining the hours you have and pushing others to recognize the value you bring to your field.” I am not entirely sure how to accomplish that, but I know that the day when I let the value judgments of others dictate what I pursue and lead me to stop doing what I love, that’s the day when I would say that my work no longer moves me.
Dr. Li-Shih Huang is an associate professor of applied linguistics and learning and teaching scholar-in-residence at the University of Victoria.