A Well-Researched Prank

Volume VII, #7

Among the many questionable things we learned in college was the art of the prank call. Because we enjoyed listening to them as much as we liked making them, my roommate Chris jerry-rigged a recording device, which also had the benefit of preserving our calls for posterity.

One I particularly enjoyed was when my roommate Dave called the esteemed literary publication, the Yale Review.

YR: Hello, Yale Review. Dave: Yes, I wrote some poetry that I’d like to submit, but before I bother putting a stamp on it, I’m just wondering if I could read it to you. YR: Oh… you know, I don’t… Dave: OK, here it is. I call it “The Road I Didn’t Take.” Two roads diverged in a yellow wood And sorry I could not travel both And be one traveler long I stood And looked down one as far as I could To where it bent in the undergrowth Then took the other as just as fair And having perhaps the better claim Because it was grassy and wanted wear Though as for that the passing there Had worn them really about the same Well, what do you think of it so far? YR: (laughter) I think it sounds a lot like Robert Frost. Dave: Well he’s really been, I’d say, the biggest influence on my work, and I can’t say that I haven’t read his stuff. But I’m just wondering what you think of it. Is it up to snuff. YR: The reason I was demurring at even having you bother to take the time to read it to me is that my job doesn’t influence what goes into the Review. They would have published Frost, in fact they did, before… Dave: But this isn’t Frost. This is me. Okay. I think I’ve got one that fits what you’re looking for. I call it “Taking a Little Break in the Orchard on a Very Stormy Evening.” YR: (laughter)

Plagiarism isn’t a winning strategy for getting published in a journal. A better strategy, it turns out, is to make stuff up. In an article published last month in Nature, four faculty at the University of Wroclaw in Poland concocted a sham scientist – Anna O. Szust (“fraud” in Polish) – gave her fake degrees and book chapters, and applied to 360 academic journals asking to be an editor. 48 journals appointed her as an editor. Remarkably, four made her editor-in-chief. No journal attempted to contact her university or institute. One journal added her even after “she” submitted a cover letter that said the editor position would allow her to earn a degree that she already claimed on her CV.

Eight of the gullible journals claimed to have requirements to meet standards of quality and ethical publishing, but the other 40 were online journals that charge researchers to publish – fees that typically range from $100 to $400.


Over the past few years the New York Times has slapped the term “predatory” on for-profit colleges in virtually every article and editorial on the topic. Where there’s evidence of fraud, the thinking goes, there’s predatory behavior and it’s probably widespread. So it didn’t escape my notice that the Times headline on the journal sting operation referenced “Predatory Journals,” and the article quoted Jeffrey Beall, a librarian at the University of Colorado, to make the point that the effects may be widespread: “There are countless researchers and academics, currently employed, who have secured jobs, promotions, and tenure using publications in pay-to-publish journals as part of their credentials and experience for the jobs and promotions they go.”

But don’t expect this use of “predatory” in the context of journals to lead to similar follow-up articles, let alone a blanket condemnation of the research enterprise that undergirds American higher education. Unlike the profit motive, it’s hard for anyone – even the Times – to come out against research. Everyone is in favor of knowledge production. “Research” drives innovation and economic growth. More research is always good.

Still, we need to be careful. “Safety” is also a good thing. It’s hard to be against safety. Safety promotes health and well-being. But it’s possible to take the drive for safety too far (see e.g., fear of terrorism, people who look different, immigrants, ill-advised travel bans).

Similarly, last week Washington, DC decided that credentials are a good thing, and since children are also a good thing, we should ensure that all childcare workers are appropriately credentialed with college degrees: associate’s degrees for childcare workers, and bachelor’s degrees for center directors. The implications for the cost of childcare and/or the student loan debt of low-paid childcare workers do not appear to have been seriously considered. Ironically, this same drive for degrees was exploited by some (but far from all) “predatory” for-profit colleges.

Valuing something inordinately – safety, degrees, or research – creates unintended side effects. Clearly, there needs to be a balance. Too much of a good thing can crowd out other good things, like liberty or jobs. Or in the case of research, teaching and students.


Perhaps the most self-serving of the many guiding fictions of higher education – one that has allowed research and teaching to co-exist peacefully at every traditional college and university – is that top researchers are better teachers. It is self-serving in two ways: First because it allows faculty research interests and agendas to drive curricula; universities aim to hire the best researchers and, as a result, upper-level courses directly reflect (and introductory and intermediate courses indirectly reflect) areas of active research. Second, in providing an easy metric for measuring faculty quality (i.e., number and quality of publications), this guiding fiction has historically obviated the need for measuring teaching quality or student learning.

It also may be wrong. According to a Brookings study published in January that utilized unique “matched student-faculty data” from Northwestern University between 2001 and 2008, “there is no relationship between the teaching quality and research quality of tenured Northwestern faculty.” The authors go on to say that their estimates are “precise zeroes, indicating that it’s unlikely that mismeasurement of teaching or research quality explains the lack of a relationship between the two.”

As faculty continue to make their names in previously unchartered territories, research becomes increasingly esoteric. As I noted in College Disrupted, depending on the discipline, anywhere from 45 percent (sciences) to 98 percent (arts and humanities) of published research is never cited in any other publication. A 2009 report from AEI pointed out that over the prior five years, the number of published language and literature articles had risen from 13,000 to 72,000. So while this guiding fiction might benefit students who want to become college or university faculty (presumably under the assumption that the same research-teaching paradigm will hold), it doesn’t serve the 98% of students who will work outside academia. For the vast majority of students, the research focus is somewhat of a prank.

In the next decade this guiding fiction is likely to come to an end, starting with colleges and universities that aren’t recognized as leading research institutions. As I have noted previously, the single most important change in higher education over the past decade is that over 90% of students now enroll predominantly if not exclusively for the purpose of future employment. Colleges and universities that continue to allow faculty research agendas to drive curricula will find themselves at a disadvantage in preparing students for good first jobs. (Although research-driven curricula isn’t necessarily at odds with what employers need, it’s less likely to include the appropriate mix of cognitive, non-cognitive and especially technical skill development that most employers are seeking in entry-level hires.) As third parties begin to track and report placement numbers, students will vote with their feet, understanding that a good first job is increasingly critical for attaining good subsequent jobs. Then faculty may find the prank is on them – namely that their research agendas have outlasted the ability of their institutions to employ them.


Three articles that tell us where the puck is going in higher education

1. One Solution For Inordinate Risk? Insurance Wall Street Journal article on the emergence of student loan repayment insurance, allowing colleges and universities to insure graduates against poor outcomes, by Douglas Belkin. The school buys a policy from LRAP for some or all of the students in a class. The terms of the policies are different but in general, if the student has graduated and is still earning below a certain amount in salary, LRAP cuts the student a check to help cover their student loans. Usually there is a sliding scale, so if a student is earning less LRAP would pay more. Read more 2. Do You Really Need A College Degree For That Entry-Level Job? Bloomberg report on Rockefeller Foundation survey showing that degree requirements in job descriptions reflect employers’ desire to streamline the hiring process more than any substantial need, by Peter Coy. Half of the recent college grads… said they didn't have to go to college to acquire the skills they needed for their current jobs, and 86 percent of them said they were learning things on the job that they didn't learn in college… 75 percent of the employers surveyed said the diploma is an effective way to narrow the pool of applicants and speed up the hiring process. Read more 3. Attack Of The Clones Saberr blog review of new LinkedIn talent search tool that allows employers to “clone” top performers, by Thomas Marsden.
LinkedIn has created a tool that allows you to select the LinkedIn profile of a high-performing existing staff member, and it will generate a list of suggestions of people with similar credentials. This is a great way of narrowing down the pool of candidates, however it’s generally limited to education, experience and hard skills. Read more