Commodification: Do we scholars represent ourselves or our scholarly field?

Last week I received a very unusual spam, soliciting me to consider being a ‘ghost writer’ for an unnamed academic publication, that would sell the article to an unnamed academic. Clearly, this violates not only AOM ethical conventions, as spelled out in our code of ethics, but that of most academic institutions as well. Yet, even a limited understanding of the spam model indicates that there is a marketplace for such behavior, and indeed, qualified and competent people are participating in this huge fraud. Where there is a market, there are consumers.

In addition to the previously mentioned solicitation, I received a number of emails from journal editors claiming to have read one of my published articles. For example, the most recent one claimed

Dear Dr. Benson Honig, I have had an opportunity to read your paper [“xyz”] in [“journal ABC”] and can tell from your work that you are an expert in this field. You are cordially invited to submit manuscripts for the coming issues of 2015. Please see the journal’s profile at[web address] and submit your manuscripts online.

We are recruiting reviewers for the journal, too….We would appreciate it if you could share this information with your colleagues and associates.

Often, the named journal is headquartered someplace in Nevada, or China, or India, but is never associated with an academic institution nor with an academic name or academic board I can recognize. They often require substantial “administrative fees” to process a submitted journal article.

I can’t help but ask myself “what is going on”? Somehow, I seriously doubt that the author in the robotic looking email actually read any of my articles, or really cares about my academic credential or ability. Yet, clearly, just as there is a market for ghost writers, there is a market for journals of dubious quality, and we, as a profession, seem to be supporting these questionable activities.

Clearly, the world of publication is facing an onslaught of commodification. I frequently hear from colleagues at established universities of new expectations – typically operationalized as a certain number of articles per year, in journals of a certain impact factor. Some institutions provide incentives – I’ve heard numbers as high as one year’s salary for a top journal article – while other institutions simply provide ‘help’, ranging from internal committees to entire departments of language scholars that meticulously pour over every word to increase the ‘readability and citablity’ of our work. I’m not saying that either incentives or assistance are ethically dubious – but they certainly bias the ‘playing field’ to advantage some scholarship over others. Does it matter?

Not all universities ‘buy in’ to the scholarly hero ethic. Recently, I visited a Scandinavian university, and the subject of incentives came up. The particular dept. chair considered the idea of individual incentives as absurd, as it would wreck havoc with the carefully developed esprit de corps and community oriented perspective she had been working so hard to develop. While this may not be a normative view, it certainly got me thinking….

Clearly there is a range of opinion regarding whether we should see our position as members of a scholarly community, or as individual Olympiads, and it is not my intention to weigh in on this particular debate (see Mike Peng and Gregory Dess’s “In the Spirit of Scholarship” for an excellent discussion). This debate aside, we need to acknowledge some of the associated ethical challenges that may be a consequence of the commodification of some of our institutional expectations. Any potential Olympiad is aware of the extensive battery of testing undertaken to ensure fair and honest competition. Perhaps we should also be asking ourselves, “to what extent are our institutional systems, incentives, and processes serving the public – who, after all – fund much of the research activities we undertake”?

In the AOM code of ethics, our preamble, states “The Academy of Management is devoted to increasing scientific and professional knowledge of management practices. It promotes the use of such knowledge to improve the work lives of individuals, the efficiency and effectiveness of organizations, and the well-being of society as a whole.”

The above is a worthy set of goals, and certainly highlights the most important contributions we can make through our research. What kinds of systems can we develop that lead us to accomplish these goals? Are we presently ‘on the right track’? Does the commodification of our research activities lead to accomplishing these goals, in the most ethical way, or to sidetracking them, perhaps by encouraging ethical shortcuts?

2 thoughts on “Commodification: Do we scholars represent ourselves or our scholarly field?”

  1. I clearly remember back in the 1990s when I suddenly realised that people had stopped talking about reading and writing texts. They were now talking about “text production” and, albeit mainly implicitly, text consumption.

    It’s certainly the case that our systems are fostering a perception that we need ever more text to be published. To crib a line from Ezra Pound, we seem to have forgotten that a garden doesn’t come just of letting things grow. A “weeder is supremely needed.”

  2. A lot (most) of the dubious activities are, indeed, fuelled by our field’s changes in incentives and recognition of what is considered excellence. As such, while the battle of training bigger and meaner ethics guard-dogs is a necessary one, like so many other races, it will have no end, nor clear success point as the ‘competition’ will keep also getting more sophisticated.
    The problem lies in the basic model of what and how scholarship and success is rewarded and evaluated in our industry. Like with financial institutions and the stock market, regulation can help minimise violations but a root treatment of the problem would involve serious revision of operating principles and basic values.

    And here is another example of that ‘race to success’, this time related to usage of the currently popular exchange system in academe, journals’ ‘impact factor’ for journals. Some of these journals guarantee to publish your work within three days. And they don’t charge much either. The way to tenure and promotion is now clearly paved!

Leave a Reply