Scholarship and the academic game

Surviving and getting ahead as an academic can sometimes be detrimental to scholarly goals.

Universities are supposed to foster the creation and dissemination of knowledge. However, the academic system of funding and careers can get in the way. Here I’ll focus on research, looking at grants and publications in Australia.

Research grants

To do research, academics can use resources provided by their universities, including libraries, computing, labs and equipment. In addition, it’s possible to obtain research grants from external sources to pay for equipment and personnel. I was once employed by a colleague’s research grant, and grateful for it. However, the research grant system has some damaging side-effects.

When success rates for grant applications are low, efforts to make applications persuasive can lead to dubious practices. Hyping the importance of research is commonplace. Some supervisors in scientific fields, in order to add to their publication record and thereby improve their chances in grant applications, put their names on papers done almost entirely by their research students.

In Australia, obtaining a grant has become so highly valued that it supersedes the research outputs it is supposed to enable. Absurdly, having a grant and producing some publications is more prestigious than producing those exact same publications without a grant, even though the researcher without a grant is more efficient.

This inversion of values is acute in the humanities, where extra money is seldom needed. Because obtaining grants is prestigious, scholars may apply for them even when they’re more trouble than they’re worth.

This especially applies to grants from the Australian Research Council, the main external source of funds for humanities and social sciences. Based on successes with direct grants, the ARC gives money to universities for scholarships and infrastructure. Therefore, university administrations have a financial incentive to encourage scholars to apply for ARC grants.

This was my experience. I have never needed extra funding for my research, but applied because it would look good on my CV and would bring additional funding to the university. I obtained four major grants from the ARC and its predecessor and used the money to hire assistants (usually becoming co-authors) to work on my projects. It was satisfying to collaborate but there were many administrative hassles.

The strange thing is that I don’t think my own productivity increased. I plotted my publications against the years in which I did or didn’t have a research grant and found no evidence of more outputs resulting from the grants. (The people employed by my grants contributed to publications, so what the grants did was fund their outputs.)

Writing grant applications is labour-intensive. My guess is that the work involved in writing a new ARC application is roughly the same as required to write a paper for publication. In a quest to obtain the money to do research, it is thus necessary to sacrifice vast quantities of time and effort that might otherwise be devoted to the research itself.

Applicants for grants often play it safe by pitching proposals that do not challenge standard views within the field. Many of those who receive grants feel obliged to follow a fixed research agenda. In these ways, grant systems discourage innovation.

Time, money and facilities are needed to do research. That’s not in question. The issue is whether grant schemes are the most effective way to foster research, especially path-breaking research. There seems to be little retrospective assessment of whether grants are providing value for money.

Where to publish?

Is the point of publishing to say something worthwhile or to get ahead? In practice, it can be a mixture.

The academic system fosters career-oriented publication. Academics are encouraged to publish in the “top” journals, the ones most prestigious in their fields. Papers in top journals are much more likely to be seen by other researchers and cited in their own papers. Receiving lots of citations is another measure of scholarly performance.

For decades in Australia, publishing in top journals has been a way of getting jobs and promotions. Because appointment committees usually have members from the same discipline, publishing in big-name journals is likely to impress them.

The Australian government through its scheme ERA (Excellence in Research for Australia) has institutionalised the preference for top journals. Universities are rated in different disciplines for “excellence,” which is largely judged on the basis of publications and citations. The more high-status the publications put forward for ERA assessments, and the more they are cited, the higher the rating.

This sounds sensible but it has pernicious effects. Many academics are now encouraged or even instructed to publish only in top journals, and new appointments are made with an eye to contributions to ERA. The result is that academics, even more than before, write primarily for each other, because most of the top journals are oriented to other researchers. People outside the field are unlikely to want to read them, as they require specialist knowledge and vocabulary and are often filled with jargon. Even people in the field may find reading published articles unappealing. Furthermore, people outside academia often do not have cheap and easy access to scholarly papers.

For books, an important currency in some fields, academics are encouraged to find prestigious publishers. Most academic books are very expensive and mainly purchased by libraries. Some of my colleagues are reluctant to recommend that others buy their own books.

Most of the top journals are owned by big publishers that make enormous profits from their control over scholarly outputs. It’s a strange situation: academics do the research, write the papers, review the submissions of their peers and edit the journals, but the resulting publications are controlled by commercial publishers. These publishers extract money in several ways. Many journals are pay-by-use, so if you’re not an academic you have to pay to read an article. Academic libraries pay large annual fees for databases with bundles of journals, so universities pay so their students and researchers can read scholarly outputs. Then there is the “open access” option provided by some journals, requiring authors (or their institutions) to pay a large fee to the publisher so it becomes free on the web.

The open access movement has been pushing to make all scholarly publications free online, but big publishers have mounted a strong resistance. Unfortunately, many authors continue to submit articles to journals owned by exploitative publishers. The reason: to get ahead in the academic game, it’s important to publish in high-prestige, high-impact journals, and most of these are controlled by the big publishers. What is called “socially just publishing” is a budding challenge to big-publisher domination.

The overall impact is that academics are encouraged to write articles in a style that alienates most readers and to publish in venues that limit access to people not at universities.

Some intellectuals are independent of universities and have the freedom to write in a readable style and publish where they like. Academics can do this too if they can resist the pressures to play the game.

A decade ago, I was able to carry out a comparison. First, I looked up the number of citations received by each of my publications. Second, I looked up the number of views of my publications on the university website. I compiled two top-20 lists of my articles and book according to citations and according to views. Lo and behold, the articles on the lists were almost entirely different.

My most frequently viewed publication was “Defamation law and free speech”.. It wasn’t published in a refereed journal, or indeed in any journal at all. I put it on my website as an aid to whistleblowers, many of whom are threatened with being sued for defamation. The article received twice as many views as anything else I had written. Meanwhile, few of my most highly cited publications received many views.

The implication was that the publications people wanted to read were systematically different from those seen as important by academics.


Why are academics so reluctant to write in places and ways that are accessible and understandable? No doubt part of the reason is the pressure to impress peers to obtain jobs, grants and promotions. But why are so many peers, namely the academics who sit on selection, grant and promotion committees, so enamoured with esoteric publications in journals and books that few people ever want to read?

I see this as an unconscious process by which academics control their fields of study, specifically to protect them from outsiders, and thereby gain resources and status. When only those in the field can understand research outputs, this provides support for the claim that only those in the field can judge who is a good scholar and who is making a useful contribution to knowledge.

Consider the alternative. If publications were expected to be readable by non-specialists, either entirely or with explanatory supplements, this would open the field to interlopers, namely scholars in neighbouring fields, and perhaps even some well-read non-academics. By keeping outputs esoteric, those in the inner sanctum are protected from competition.

Scientists have been prominent in the push for open access. Scientists have the least to worry about competition because most of their publications are understandable only by specialists. In the humanities and social sciences, and some applied fields, things are different. When concepts are easy to grasp, this can be limited by the proliferation of jargon and obscure theorising.

What to do?

Junior scholars usually feel the need to play the game for the sake of their careers. Nevertheless, it’s always possible to deviate from the expected path, though at some sacrifice or risk.

One option is to put the full text of all publications free online, on a personal website, an institutional repository or a platform like This alleviates the financial barrier to access.

Access is one thing; understandability is another. Open access is not all that helpful for writing that is opaque to outsiders. More readable treatments can be posted in blogs, published in the mass media and in popular magazines. For those seeking to rise in the system, writing for general audiences is usually an added burden, and undertaken at the risk of being seen to be unscholarly.

Then there are grant applications. As well as trying to obtain grants, it’s also possible to push for alternative funding systems.

Academics can even rewrite their job descriptions, laying out a commitment to open access and to socially just publishing.

None of this is easy or can be tackled singlehandedly. This is why movements for change, like the open access movement, are so important. Contributing to these movements is probably the most valuable way to help promote long-term change.

Brian Martin

Thanks to Tonya Agostini, Simon Batterbury, Anu Bissoonauth-Bedford, Zhuqin Feng, Kathy Flynn and Jody Watts for comments on drafts, and numerous informants over the years for sharing their insights.