Former Harvard president Claudine Gay apparently committed plagiarism, and what scholarship she did produce was neither terribly original nor valuable. Evolutionary biologist and Manhattan Institute fellow Colin Wright noted that Gay’s h-index—a measure of a scholar’s productivity and influence—stands at a lowly 10. (The creator of the h-index proposed that a score over 20 indicated a successful career and a score over 40 an outstanding one.) In other words, few scholars have cared about what she published.

Of course, publishing derivative ideas doesn’t constitute academic misconduct—just lack of professional distinction. Academics of Gay’s generation weren’t the first to be unoriginal scholars. It’s standard practice for academics to claim more originality than we deserve. Most of us write articles that we care about deeply and think are important and original but ultimately fail to set the world on fire.

Yet the flood of derivative and mediocre scholarly publications seems worse than ever. Contemporary academia’s structure and culture cater to professors’ worst tendencies, not least because they tie professors’ jobs and reputations to the quantity rather than quality of their publications. Yet herein also lies reason for hope: colleges and universities used to be better, and can become so again. We can make real reforms to the ivory tower by changing academics’ incentives and reduce the amount of derivative, unoriginal scholarship.

First, we need to strengthen admissions standards. All those unpopular scholars who think that IQ matters have been shouting from the rooftops that the quality of college education is falling, not least because college students’ average IQ has fallen—by 17 points since 1939. This IQ drop also affects graduate students and professors. We have more derivative scholarly papers, to say nothing of plagiarized or statistically manipulated research, because we have more graduate students and professors who can’t do better.

This doesn’t mean that colleges and universities should tie admissions standards to IQ tests. But if we strengthen admissions standards for graduate schools, we’ll begin to get more original research.

It’s just as important to end the academic imperative of “publish or perish.” This isn’t a new suggestion; people have been criticizing the fixation on publication for more than a century. But the mass production of Ph.D.s in the past two generations means that the ivory tower is spewing out an unprecedented amount of trivial scholarship. Most of those Ph.D.s shouldn’t bother publishing; their most important job is to teach undergraduates. We need to change academia’s incentive structures so that they publish less and teach more.

Academia should embrace the Ph.D. by Publication model, whereby one can be awarded a doctorate for publishing a series of scholarly articles rather than a full dissertation. Some disciplines, mostly in the sciences, already do this. Many scholars still view this sort of Ph.D. as second-rate, but we should prize an original article over a derivative dissertation or monograph.

Ph.D. by Publication would also make a larger transformation possible: removing research requirements from most university teaching jobs. Many undergraduate courses don’t need teachers with doctorates. Most college teachers should have taken an M.A. or M.S. sequence of courses and published just enough to convey to students that research is conducted in a process of discovery, not as an exercise in confirming one’s prejudices. Colleges and universities should revise requirements so that an M.A. and one published article is sufficient qualification to teach introductory courses, and an additional two articles for teaching advanced undergraduate courses. The full Ph.D., which could be satisfied by three further articles, would qualify one to teach capstone undergraduate seminars and graduate courses.

This sequence would remove most publication imperatives from the vast majority of college and university teaching jobs. If, say, three quarters of academics had to publish only three articles, it’s more likely that those three articles would be worth reading. At worst, there would be less demand for marginal work.

Colleges and universities could then shift to good teaching as the metric for hiring and promotion. How you do that is the subject for another discussion, but we can’t begin that reform effectively until publication is no longer the fundamental measure of quality for most undergraduate teachers.

Raising admission standards for graduate students and ending publish-or-perish are good reforms in themselves. But they’re also necessary reforms if we want to get rid of the ivory tower’s plague of worthless scholarship.

Photo: Jose Miguel Sanchez/iStock


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