All the attention, anxiety and fear are focused on what will happen in the days and weeks to come. It seems impossible to think beyond the COVID-19 emergency. And yet, this is exactly the moment to ask if it is possible to think about a different future, and to use this opportunity not just to reopen the current academic system but also to make substantive progress toward building a more equitable and open one.
University rankings, journal impact factors, performance-based funding for universities – these have all affected the culture of academic institutions for years and have progressively led to an erosion of control by academic institutions over their own destiny. Data analytics services have a market and are in demand – in spite of all the issues they pose – because academic life has become a race to secure funding. As a result, research assessment is becoming a business opportunity, and one that commercial vendors appear eager to control, regardless of their possible conflicts of interest. SPARC’s Landscape Analysis and the Roadmap for Action are intended to support institutions in reclaiming control.
This culture is ripe for radical change. We are seeing a vast community of researchers operating around the world to share preprints and data sets in the search for a vaccine and a cure for COVID-19. For many researchers, and for society at large, finding vaccines and cures matters a lot more than publishing articles in prestigious journals ahead of others. This culture of collaboration and sharing, which is defined so well by Kathleen Fitzpatrick in her recent book Generous Thinking, is what is opening the eyes of many skeptics to the value of knowledge and scholarship.
In the months and years to come, university and college presidents and provosts will have to decide which departments to downsize, which labs to close, which research programs to abandon. Perhaps, the time has come to cede some control and accept that sharing programs, labs and departments may be better than losing them altogether. Sharing programs may affect rankings, but abandoning them may be much worse.
These changes will not come in one week or in one month. But it is time to start thinking about collaboration and sharing, rather than competition, as a basis for rebuilding the academic community. Then, perhaps, many of the issues outlined in the Landscape Analysis, as well as in many articles and publications around “gaming the metrics,”1 will become less relevant. At that point, data infrastructure may become what it was always meant to be: a support for the research community, rather than a tool to control it.