Academia as Competition

Academics are almost always working. We love what we do and, I believe, many of us are like me who cannot stop thinking about my research. At the same time, academic institutions put us into a competition that can be extremely stressful even for the winners who need to keep cranking out papers in the never-ending tournament of top journal publishing.

I often hear arguments that the system is unfair to those who cannot dedicate their whole life to research and publishing. Some need to take care of their dependents or just want to have a little bit of ‘normal’ life — whatever that means. I never had one since I left home when I was 18. Fitting such aspirations together with the competition in a top academic institution is difficult. This is especially true for women who often disproportionately shoulder the care burden (Criado Perez 2019).

Yet, as well-intentioned as calls for academics to work less may be, I am afraid they alone won’t change anything. There will always be those who are wiling to put in extra hours to increase their chance of succeeding in the competition. You cannot stop people from thinking and, in the academic competition, it’s the rate-buster who wins (Dalton 1948). It is also easy to sympathize with a colleague who pointed out that it may not be fair to expect, for instance, junior academics to work less when their career and standard of living depends on being tenured. This is especially so when the calls are made by those who have already secured their positions.

The way we work reflects the kind of competition we are in.

In this post, I argue that the way we work reflects the kind of competition we are in: as long as publications in a narrow set of top journals grant prestige and positions to individual scholars, we will do whatever we can to get those publications out. This is, of course, more true for some fields than others. Yet, if you believe that academics should be promoted, remunerated, and celebrated according to their academic achievements — however those may be assessed — then you implicitly admit that there may be a degree of competition among us.

Now, if we want to make the playing field more level (some would say more humane) we need to understand and transform the nature of academic competition. To begin with, we may ask:

A simple answer is yes and no. Yes, in the sense that the academic competition is a mechanism which ensures that, at least to some degree, academics produce what we are ultimately paid for, that is, academic knowledge. This may sound a contentious claim so let me consider three criticisms that can be leveled against it.

First, it is true that academics serve other functions than the production of academic knowledge. However, many of those could be performed by other types of institutions as well, whereas academic knowledge is something that is difficult to think apart from the academia. In this sense, the production of academic knowledge is the core purpose of academia.

Second, top journal publishing, that is usually the hallmark of academic knowledge production, is often criticized for producing practically irrelevant research for a small group of fellow researchers. This may be true to some extent, but it does not follow that other outlets would be necessarily any better. The primary function of academic publishing is to provide a forum for academic discussion and thus knowledge creation, whereas the dissemination of knowledge beyond the academic community is best handled by other media.

Third, I do not claim that competition is the only possible mechanisms that can ensure that academics produce something useful for the rest of the society. Therefore, no, the academic competition is not strictly necessary but, whether we accept it or not, it seems to be the prevailing mechanism in many disciplines at the moment.

Turning a blind eye to or complaining about academic competition does not make it go away; instead, we can embrace the metaphor to better understand academia.

The first thing that becomes clear when we look at academia literally as competition is that top academics do no operate as employees. We can typically define a good-enough level of performance for an employee, whereas the mode of operation of top academics resembles more top athletes, who dedicate their life to creating cutting edge performance. The point is that we do not think athletes should train less to give others an equal chance to win.

The comparison may seem far-fetched, but it explains certain aspects of academic work better than seeing academics as employees. Top athletes push their bodies to the limits, whereas academics push their minds which means that work in a top institution is stressful by definition, that is, some degree of stress is a feature of high-quality academic work.

The problem with the academic competition is that we often see it in very narrow terms. This is at least partly due to a contagious intellectual disease known as league table fetishism. Problems with league tables are well known, for instance, by the seminal work of Espeland and Sauder as well as by commentaries such a recent post by Jelena Brankovic on the absurdity of university rankings. Yet, these seem to have little impact on our lust for rankings. The league tables serve those who are at the top by entrenching their position in the eyes of talent and money, whereas the majority of institutions are forced into a competition that they can never win.

For instance, the University of Leicester Schools of Business in the UK made it recently a ‘strategic’ priority to become more ‘mainstream’ and move away from its recognized critical management studies tradition. While I am not a critical scholar myself and I could be described even as ‘mainstream’, it is hard to see the strategy in the move. The decision may make financial sense in the short term, but it puts the school into a competition in which it is doomed to be a third-tier player — at best.

Instead of trying to deny the existence of the academic competition or naively accept it as if it were a some sort of natural force, we should see competition differently. We need to understand academic competition in more polycentric terms — as a system that has many peaks but not a single top (Tarko 2014). This is what, I believe, is so infuriating in the talk about of ‘top journals’ and ‘top institutions’ to many.

We need to understand academic competition in more polycentric terms — as a system that has many peaks but not a single top.

Just as it does not makes sense to argue whether Serena Williams or Cristiano Ronaldo is a better athlete, we should not argue whether a management information systems scholar does better research than a researcher in accounting or in development studies— because they are not playing the same game. Yet, a competition driven by league tables is largely blind to such heterogeneity. The logic of most league tables is to commensurate incommensurable disciplines and to gloss over heterogeneity within disciplines.

This does not mean that everyone can invent their own little field and claim to be on ‘top’; that all research is equally important, or that everyone should be paid the same in academia. Academic research is a fundamentally collective effort so that no individual researcher or institution can define it to their own interests. By choosing a career in one academic field over another, we make choices about our future earnings and prestige. To use again an analogue to sports, a professional rock climber simply does not earn as much as a professional football player. Of course, this does not mean that we should accept unfair income disparities, for instance, between female and male academics — we should fight those and corruption that is bound to happen in any system that distributes money and prestige.

There will and should be tensions about the definition of high-quality research and the nature of academic knowledge. Competitive tensions can motivate individual scholars and entire disciplines to improve their work without dividing us into a few winners and many losers like the system epitomized by league tables. As much as we like to complain about the academic competition, it provides a relatively transparent and meritocratic system for making a career as compared to most government and industry jobs. We at least know what and where is the goal — however superficial that may sometimes seem.

This is a difficult question. Yes, of course, in the sense that academic competition should be free of discrimination, unfair biases, and corruption. And there is a lot to do on this front, for instance, by making sure that those ‘top journals’ offer indeed a fair chance for everyone to get published irrespective scholarly background, institutional affiliation, social connections, and so forth.

At the same time, it is true that some people are smarter, more hard-working, and better resourced than others. It would be a grave mistake both societally and for the legitimacy of academia to hold those people back from excelling in what they do. Cutting-edge knowledge created by the top academics is critical to legitimizing the entire system; even if you may not be the next Nobel laureate, your opportunity to spend time on your favorite project is indirectly made possible by somebody somewhere creating occasionally breakthrough knowledge.

Going back to my sport analogy, a sport where everyone has an equal chance of winning regardless of how good they are would not be very entertaining to watch. From this perspective, academic competition is not ‘fair’ and it should not be. When I played football (the game also known as soccer) in our neighborhood team Käpylän Sekunda, I was not paid like Lionel Messi and our team had to play on bad pitches against equally bad teams. But, I did not complain because I knew that I was not as good as Messi. Instead, in academia I can be, if not the next Nobel laureate, a good researcher if I work hard.

PhD students and junior researchers need to have a realistic picture of the academic competition they are about to enter to be able to choose whether it is for them and, if so, how they want to compete. Academic competition in so-called ‘top institutions’ is not for everyone, but if you understand its nature you are better positioned to pick the fights that you are able to win without becoming a sore loser. If you aim to work for a so-called ‘top institution’ among ‘top scholars’, you should expect it to be competitive and stressful.

Finally, let me go back to the title of this post — academia as competition — I use competition as a metaphor that brings out certain features of academia while hiding many others. I am not saying that academia is a competition. I am happy if you find the post illuminating, but even better if it disturbs you, because then it has probably forced you to sharpen your own views about academic work.

Entrepreneur, MIS scholar and thinker with thirty years of experience in digital technology — www.aleksi.info