The academic gold standard

If you are an academic and you’ve made your way up the promotional ladder – let’s say you are a full professor – then you will have been a prolific publisher of books, monographs and refereed journal articles. And if I don’t immediately know about you, there are now various databases where I can look you up and find out what you’ve published – this is a good example. And if I need to make a judgement as to how good you are as an academic, then the information I find there will help me to make it.

As has been mentioned before in this blog, that raises a few questions about whether and how we value excellence in teaching; but let us leave that aside for now. My concern here is something different: that there may be an increasingly significant conflict between this basis of advancing someone’s academic career on the one hand, and the interests of the university on the other. It has been clear for some time that in those areas of research where the registration of intellectual property (chiefly patents) may be vital in order to protect the research and ensure that when it subsequently is exploited commercially the university gets a share of the revenues. If you publish – either before the patent is registered or in some cases at all – the commercial value of the discovery may be lost to the university for good. And just in case you are tempted to answer that all this is OK, because university research should be accessible to all, then think again: the consequence of not registering the patent is typically not that everyone can use the discovery, but rather that someone external to the university will exploit it and then register the patent themselves, thereby excluding the wider community and indeed ensuring that the financial benefits are kept in private hands. Innovation offices in universities have for some time had to struggle with these contradictions.

This has been an intractable problem in large part because the academics affected, when faced with this scenario, have to weigh up the competing claims of the university (and possibly themselves) for a share of the financial benefits of the research on the one hand, and the prospect of their career advancement on the other. That is not a dilemma we should place before them.

It seems to me that the answer to this is that we must begin to tackle much more seriously the basis on which we promote academic staff, and we may have to face up to the possibility that academic publication as the sole gold standard cannot survive as the only real basis for promotion. We must of course not compromise in our desire to have intellectual excellence and proven scholarly output as the foundation for the assessment of merit; but we may need to think again about exactly where that excellence and that output should be visible. This cannot be done by one institution acting alone, as academic reputations need to be built on a globally recognised rate of exchange; we just need to start the debate on what that should be.

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2 Comments on “The academic gold standard”

  1. Aoife Citizen Says:

    But isn’t it an observable fact that the interests of a country or region are best served by the University system which leaks IP: University Innovation offices are not always or even usually the best mechanism for exploiting IP and incentivizing researchers to patent rather than publish is certainly not the best way to encourage good research. By trying to keep IP for themselves, and by forcing researchers to treat their discoveries in a particular way, Universities might serve their own short term interests while failing in their mission to further research and to improve the long term economic strength of their country or region.

  2. cormac Says:

    Re “someone external to the university will exploit it and then register the patent themselves”,
    perhaps the solution is to work on methods to prevent this happening i.e. to work on methods that will preserve open access.

    Consider my favourite example of innovation from pure science: I am very glad (and proud) that the world wide web was invented by a CERN physicist (Tim Berners-Lee) who chose not to patent it, but to share CERN’s knowledge with the world. As a result, the web took off and revolutionized all our lives. It would have been a tragedy if Tim had patented it in order to prevent others from doing the same…regards Cormac


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