Bowing Out Gracefully: Why Teaching Institutions Should Eliminate Publication Requirements
Leaders at teaching universities should work to eliminate faculty publication and presentation requirements. Bowing out gracefully from the publication arena would reflect not a failure but rather a deliberate step toward priorities more aligned with our mission and away from an increasingly dysfunctional publication scene.
Teaching institutions position quality teaching at the core of their mission. In turn, students select teaching universities with the expectation that those schools will prioritize quality instruction (Cofer, 2017). Thus, student-focused, mission-based prioritization dictates that all other activities are valuable only to the extent that they support high-quality teaching (Price et al., 2011). The assumption has long been that because faculty publication and presentation support better teaching, resources to that end are well spent. But what evidence is there to support this assumption? In general, publication requires a narrow, niche-based focus designed to connect with an audience of professional peers. By contrast, good teaching typically requires a wide scope of mastery targeted at making content accessible to students (Cofer, 2017). Sometimes the two dovetail, as in specialty seminar courses. But time spent on the research agenda often detracts from the primary teaching mission.
In academic parlance, the word scholarship has become synonymous with research. The word scholarly, however, can be defined as “having or showing knowledge, learning, or devotion to academic pursuits” (“Scholarly,” n.d.). Good teaching is clearly scholarly. And valuable! Furthermore, many teaching faculty will always remain involved in research through their role in teaching the process of scientific or creative inquiry. The difference is that instruction will involve a carefully paced curriculum designed to support student mastery rather than emphasize faculty research achievement.
No such thing as “no risk”
Eliminating publication and presentation requirements is a bold move, and it is tempting to look for more moderate solutions. But we face a moral imperative that favors firm action. Certainly, there is valuable, illuminating, enriching, even life-saving research being published every day. Unfortunately, it is becoming increasingly hard to find given the proliferation of mediocre (or worse) publication and presentation venues (Bauerlein et al., 2010; Kolata, 2017; Rawat & Meena, 2014; Spellman, 2015). Determining the relative worth of different journals has become a field of study in its own right, and many are ultimately found lacking (Bauerlein et al., 2010; Callaway, 2016). We rely on the peer-review process to set high standards, but the system is stretched too thin (Bauerlein et al., 2010), and unprofessional conduct flourishes. Rawat and Meena (2014) describe dubious research practices that are common enough to have earned clever labels, such as “salami slicing,” “ghost authoring,” and “pay-to-play.” And then there’s fraud, which threatens the integrity and stature of all scholarship across disciplines.
The Institutional Review Board (IRB) process, designed to protect the public from harm, evaluates the likelihood that people will encounter more than “minimal risk” by participating in a study. The implicit message here is that “minimal risk” is as safe as it gets. Some risk is acceptable when research is likely to yield meaningful advancement, but the serious problems in the current publication scene make it unlikely that the broad research community is reaching an acceptable balance of harm and progress. In general, the publication of low-quality research is a waste of both human and environmental capital (Bauerlein et al., 2010). It’s doubly wasteful when one accounts for the potentially valuable research that is lost in the debris.
What role should teaching institutions play in improving the publication process? Many would struggle to keep up with higher standards given all that our true mission demands. Moreover, we would continue to drain resources, overload the peer-review system, and promote the proliferation of mediocre journals and conferences. Instead, teaching institutions should bow out gracefully. That would give the research community more bandwidth to make better decisions and allow us to redirect our attention to the worthy craft of teaching.
Not required is not prohibited
Some teaching faculty will vehemently proclaim that their publications are essential to the advancement of their fields. Some of them will be absolutely right. In fact, this will likely occur more frequently once we are released from the “achievable” agendas we develop to stay afloat in the current flawed system. Faculty who want to publish and present certainly won’t be prohibited from doing so. And when teaching faculty have something relevant and worthy to offer, we will all benefit from a higher-quality literature where our best ideas are more likely to be noticed by others, pursued, honed, expanded, and applied to make an actual difference.
If we bow out of publishing, what will we be doing instead? Any committed teacher will have countless ideas for using that time to improve student learning, but there are some systems-level objectives to consider as well. First, we’ll still be scholars. But we will focus on absorbing information from high-quality journals and conferences rather than seeking less selective outlets where we have an easy shot at disseminating our own work. We may play a critical role in the scholarly peer-review process, staying abreast of our fields while making meaningful contributions to research and development. Ideally, teaching institutions would realign conserved resources with endeavors that support the university mission, such as funding faculty travel to top-tier conferences to absorb (rather than present) new information or rewarding faculty who teach the community about key developments in their fields by publishing in popular, accessible venues (rather than only recognizing peer-reviewed outlets). Over time, if teaching faculty bow out, it will reduce the market for “predatory” journals (Kolata, 2017), and everyone will be attending to a smaller number of venues, with bigger audiences, absorbing better scholarship. Some of the audience will then propagate additional research, while others will disseminate it through good teaching.
We must also focus on better tenure and promotion processes. Publication is currently being used as a key indicator of performance and capacity. Even at research universities, the validity of this measure is under question as it is simultaneously both too hard and too easy to publish in the current arena (Bauerlein et al., 2010; Kolata, 2017); Rawat & Meena, 2014). It’s too hard because the proliferation of inconsequential studies makes the literature review process an enormous drain on resources. And it’s too easy because the overabundance of journals means that there is a home for every idea if one is persistent enough. At teaching universities, publication is a laughably poor indicator of mission-relevant capacity. One can be a prolific publisher without an ounce of teaching skill. With the increasing concerns over bias in student evaluation (Basow & Martin, 2013), it is incumbent upon teaching universities to divert additional resources toward refining more valid measures, such as peer reviews of teaching. Well-researched techniques will even be worth publishing for our peers to learn from.
Other worthy issues to address include increasing meaningful student contact with faculty, reducing adjunct instruction, and developing innovative interdisciplinary approaches that prepare our students to shift paradigms and make our global community a better place for all beings everywhere. Yes, I’m serious. Great teaching matters.
Basow, S. & Martin J. (2013). Bias in student evaluations. Layfette Digital Repository. https://ldr.lafayette.edu/bitstream/handle/10385/1405/Basow-EffectiveEvaluationofTeaching-2013.pdf?sequence=1
Bauerlien, M., Gad-el-Hak, M., Grody, W., McKelvey, B., & Trimble, S. W. (2010, June 13). We must stop the avalanche of low-quality research. The Chronicle of Higher Education. https://www.chronicle.com/article/We-Must-Stop-the-Avalanche-of/65890
Bower, B. (2018, August 27). “Replication crisis” spurs reforms in how science studies are done. Science News. https://www.sciencenews.org/blog/science-public/replication-crisis-psychology-science-studies-statistics
Callaway, E. (2016). Beat it, impact factor! Publishing elite turns against controversial metric. Nature, 535(7611), 210–211. https://doi.org/10.1038/nature.2016.20224
Cofer, J. (2017, August 22). So you want to work at a teaching college? The Chronicle of Higher Education. https://www.chronicle.com/article/So-You-Want-to-Work-at-a/240975
Kolata, G. (2017, October 30). Many academics are eager to publish in worthless journals. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/30/science/predatory-journals-academics.html
Price, M., Mores, W., & Elliotte, H. M. (2011). Building high performance government through Lean Six Sigma. McGraw-Hill.
Rawat, S., & Meena, S. (2014) Publish or perish: Where are we heading? Journal of Research in Medical Sciences, 19(2),87–89. https://doi.org/10.7326/0003-4819-158-3-201302050-00590
Selph, S., Bougatsos, C., Blazina, I., & Nelson, H. D. (2013). Behavioral interventions and counseling to prevent child abuse and neglect: A systematic review to update the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommendation. Annals of Internal Medicine, 15(3), 179–190. https://annals.org/aim/fullarticle/1558515/behavioral-interventions-counseling-prevent-child-abuse-neglect-systematic-review-update
Scholarly. (n.d.). In Oxford Dictionary. https://www.lexico.com/en/definition/definition
Spellman, B. A. (2015). A short (personal) future history of revolution 2.0. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 10(6), 886–889. https://doi.org/10.1177/1745691615609918
Kayla Waters, PhD, is a professor in the Family and Human Services Department at Washburn University. She is passionate about using lean, mission-based practices to simultaneously enhance student outcomes, improve faculty well-being, and support long-term institutional viability.