The SEO of academia?

Michael Burowoy describes one of the current prevailing models of the university as “the regulation model,” which aims to make the university production of knowledge “more efficient, more productive and more accountable by more direct means.” In other words, to make what universities do (supposedly, “produce knowledge”) equivalent to what industries do (“produce computers,” “produce financial instruments”), and to improve that activity according to equivalent metrics: efficiency, productivity, accountability.

This requires some means of measuring what it is that all those professors, post-docs, and grad students actually DO. And since they don’t generally make physical stuff, or much money, one option is to quantify their intellectual output somehow through publications–one of the more tangible creations expected of professional academics.

All of this is to say that how we measure academic success is an important question in the age of austerity. If budgets (and one’s employment status) depend on meeting quantitative targets, people will probably alter their behavior accordingly. Which brings me to some questions about Impact Factor!*

As I understand it, Impact Factor (IF) aims to measure the relative importance of a journal through how often its articles are cited. Bjoern Brembs summarizes some research suggesting that IF is actually a better predictor of a paper’s chance of being retracted than of its being cited. There’s some evidence this may be because journals with a high IF are more likely to publish flawed studies.

IF is also predictive of the sample size of the gene association study: the higher the IF of the journal in which the study was published, the lower the sample size. One could interpret this as evidence that high-IF journals are more likely to publish a large effect, even though it is only backed up by a small sample size, while low-IF journals require a more solid amount of data to back up the authors’ claims.

If this is the case, it provokes a few thoughts.

Citations are a bit like pageviews or linkbacks: you may get more with extreme claims and controversy, even if the quality of your work isn’t great. Simply counting citations, without any attention to the context in which work is cited, is a pretty shallow measure of importance. Studies are often cited in order to disagree with or refute their conclusions.

However, if measures like IF continue to be important, especially when it comes to budgets, we can probably expect more universities and researchers to game the system. And if all we’re measuring when it comes to “impact” is how often their work gets mentioned, we may be setting ourselves up for Huffington Post-style SEO academic journals.

Setting aside the long-term solution of reining in the regulation model and ending measurement mania, what kinds of metrics might be devised that would better measure real intellectual contributions, and that would create incentives to conduct high-quality research?


Are we back to the “culture of poverty” again?

Poverty is ruining children’s brains.

At least that’s the implication of Jonathan Cohn’s article, which is meant as a summary of the implications of neuroscience for developing anti-poverty social policies. Weirdly, though, he’s never totally clear about what “poverty” means, which leads him to conflate a host of radically different problems in a way that pathologizes poverty.

The article starts with a striking example of neglect: state-run orphanages in Romania.

It was ten years after the fall of the Communist dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu, whose scheme for increasing the country’s population through bans on birth control and abortion had filled state-run institutions with children their parents couldn’t support […]But ten years later, the new government […] was still warehousing at least 60,000 kids, some of them born after the old regime’s fall, in facilities where many received almost no meaningful human interaction.

Unsurprisingly, many of these children suffer from severe cognitive and emotional problems. Research conducted on the children has suggested this extreme form of neglect even shows up at the sub-cellular level, very likely hampering brain development in early childhood. It is truly a tragic situation.

But this is where the article gets weird.

Cohn’s discussion shifts immediately from Romanian orphans into…

APPROXIMATELY SEVEN MILLION American infants, toddlers, and preschoolers get care from somebody other than a relative, whether through organized day care centers or more informal arrangements […]And much of that care is not very good.

Huh. I knew that the day care situation in the US wasn’t great. But I didn’t realize it was quite on the scale of a post-socialist Romanian orphanage. Good lord. But then…

Of course, children in substandard day care are not the only children at risk in the United States. There are also hundreds of thousands of babies born each year to American teenagers, about 60 percent of them poor. The vast majority of teen mothers are unmarried when they give birth, and frequently lack either family support or the financial resources to find capable outside help.

Ok, hold up. Let’s make a little equation to clarify the connections Cohn is making here.

Romanian orphanage = US non-relative caregivers = “not very good” day care = poor unmarried teenage mother

The next sentence makes it clear:

Then there are the children who begin their lives in traumatic circumstances for other reasons—because they have a parent with clinical depression, or they witness violence in the home. (Emphasis added.)

In other words, being born to an unmarried teen is a “trauma” akin to that of witnessing domestic violence or growing up in a Romanian orphanage. And that’s what I mean by “pathologizing poverty.”

Now, I don’t mean to deride Cohn for tackling poverty and its social effects. The article’s basic conclusion—that it would be worthwhile to fund more social support services for poor families—isn’t a terrible idea.

But there are a few too many gaps between the research cited and the proposed target population of these policies—and the implication that poor mothers under the age of 20 are traumatizing their children is a dangerous kind of exaggeration.

Furthermore, placing this under the umbrella of “problems caused by poverty” and treating those problems as primarily issues of ignorance, to be solved by counseling by experts, means we’re not looking for connections to broader social problems.

It’s great to offer counseling and training to help new mothers (those who want to and are able!) learn how to breastfeed. But there’s still a lot of work to be done to make room in public and in the workplace for breastfeeding mothers.

Helping new parents develop strategies for childcare and managing their own stress is fantastic. But child abuse isn’t only committed by poor parents.

And to suggest that the “cycle of poverty” is has something to do with early childhood brain development is intriguing. But in the midst of a major recession, and after decades of income stagnation and even decline for the middle and lower classes, isn’t that a tiny bit myopic?

Science and embryonic personhood

This is coming a bit late, since last week Mississippi voters turned down the proposed amendment that would have established personhood for fertilized human ova. Let me pause for a moment in amazement at the creative potential of the law and the truly god-like power of voting. The right kind of ballot can create life!

The issue

In any case, one of the many angles of attack for writers organizing against the personhood amendment was against ignorance of scientific knowledge, and against the perceived misrepresentation of science, by supporters of the amendment. A key issue surrounding the amendment was whether it would ban hormonal birth control, and discussions of this issue, even among feminists and others opposed to the amendment, revealed a widespread belief that the pill works by preventing fertilized ova from implanting. In truth, as best scientists can tell, the pill’s main function is to prevent ovulation in the first place.

However, some amendment supporters were quite clear that they interpreted the amendment as outlawing not only abortion, but also many forms of contraception.

Indeed, at least one pro-Personhood doctor in Mississippi, Beverly McMillan, refused to prescribe the pill before retiring last year, writing, “I painfully agree that birth control pills do in fact cause abortions.” (via Irin Carmon, Salon)

On its Web site, Yes on 26 confirms that this rule covers some IUDs and oral contraceptives: “We are opposed to those birth control methods which act as abortifacients. These could include forms of the pill which act to prevent implantation of the newly formed human into the lining of the womb; forms of the IUD, which can act the same …” (via William Saletan, Slate)

Amanda Marcotte spent a fair amount of writing-time pointing out the ways in which these incorrect claims were being repeated by the amendment’s opponents. In their efforts to publicize the real possibility that a personhood amendment, in practice, would likely be used to curtail access to birth control, opponents either didn’t realize the mistake, or didn’t want to get bogged down in technical arguments about biology.

Politically speaking, avoiding the tedious biological discussions of how the pill works and the tedious legal discussions of the interaction of science and policy and going straight to what the audience needs to know—anti-choicers are trying to ban the pill!—is the smart move. I don’t blame anyone for going there. […] But still, it bothers me. Every time we fail to address the blatant lie about how the pill works at the center of this debate, we allow the lie to linger. (via Amanda Marcotte, HR Reality Check)

The complication

So are fertilized-egg-personhood supporters anti-science? On this level, maybe that would be a fair criticism. The research we have best supports the notion that the pill prevents ovulation, not implantation. Claiming that the pill is essentially an abortifacient is not accurate.

On another level, though, this amendment depends on a world of science and advanced medical technology. Even to ask whether life begins at conception requires a specific biomedical understanding of human reproduction on a microscopic level. You need a theory of cells, of eggs and sperm, even of DNA. This diagram needs to make some sense to you:

Diagram of egg and sperm mutually engaged in fertilization

Diagram of egg and sperm mutually engaged in fertilization

It helps to have really high-tech ways of viewing and recording images of tiny cells. Indeed, it turns out that the advent of ultrasound and other imaging technologies have played an important role in allowing us to develop earlier notions of personhood.


Personhood is essentially a social act: it is the recognition by a community that a particular entity is also a person. Who gets to be a person, how, and when–these can vary dramatically from one place to another and across history. (Over-simplifications ahead!) Janet Carsten, for example, writes about a group of Malay people who understand personhood as intimately related to kinship: to be a complete person, one must be in a kinship network. Kinship develops over time through a gradual process of eating and living together with others. [1] Nancy Scheper-Hughes famously described the contingent personhood of children in a Brazilian favela; lacking the resources (economic, emotional, and otherwise) to care for their children, many mothers delayed attributing personhood to children until they seemed likely to survive. [2] The US Constitution ascribed personhood from birth to enslaved Africans, but counted them as merely 2/3 of a full person. (That last 1/3 included rights to vote, marry, travel and work freely, etc.) (One wonders what kind of rights an embryonic person would have?)

The point being, of course, that there’s nothing objective or obvious about what personhood is or when it begins.

Nonetheless, a significant trend in the US has been for the beginning of personhood to shift earlier as our ability to see into the womb has improved. Furthermore, as technology has enabled us to think more (and see more) about the early stages of gestation, the treatments and procedures that have become possible have forced us to make decisions about personhood, as Rayna Rapp discovered in her research into amniocentesis. Once it becomes possible to test for Down Syndrome, she writes, one has to make a choice about whether to test. And then, what to do with the results. [3]

Modern biological science and the technology of medicine make it possible to think about personhood for a cell, an embryo, or a fetus.

Anti-science depends on science?

Well, of course it does, just like any opposition movement. But the personhood debate is quite telling of the deep influence biomedicine has had on US culture that even those whose views are often believed to be anti-science, and who themselves may advocate a stronger role for religion rather than science in public life. The very position taken by religious conservatives is one that science has only recently made thinkable.

Image of a zygote

[1] Carsten, Janet 1995. “The substance of kinship and the heat of the hearth–feeding, personhood, and relatedness among Malays in Pulau Langkawi.” American Ethnologist 22(1): 223-241
[2] Scheper-Hughes, Nancy 1992. Death Without Weeping: The Violence of Everyday Life in Brazil. Berkeley: University of California Press.
[3] Rapp, Rayna 1999. Testing Women, Testing the Fetus. New York: Routledge.