What do academic metrics do to political scientists? Theorizing their roots, locating their effects

Publication Date01 November 2017
AuthorStephane J Baele,Gregorio Bettiza
Date01 November 2017
SubjectResearch Articles
/tmp/tmp-17Q3jmTEcM37fQ/input 685727POL0010.1177/0263395716685727PoliticsBaele and Bettiza
Research Article
2017, Vol. 37(4) 445 –469
What do academic metrics
© The Author(s) 2017
Reprints and permissions:
do to political scientists?
DOI: 10.1177/0263395716685727
Theorizing their roots,
locating their effects

Stephane J Baele and Gregorio Bettiza
University of Exeter, UK.
This article argues that it is pertinent to situate academic metrics (journal, institutions and individual
scholars’ rankings and ratings) within the broader logic of neoliberal government, in order to
better identify and understand the impact of these metrics on political scientists’ perceptions,
behaviours and identities. The results of a pilot survey conducted among political scientists in the
United Kingdom and Belgium are used in order to further expose this impact. More precisely,
we claim that although metrics are widely seen as a core element of a broader and undesirable
political agenda, their repeated use leads to their endorsement, shapes and standardizes individual
strategies, and shifts the codes of academic identity to the point of eroding academics’ sense of
purpose and permeating their judgements about colleagues.
academic rankings, behaviours, identity, metrics, perceptions, political science
Received: 2nd August 2016; Revised version received: 3rd October 2016; Accepted: 2nd November 2016
Numbers are today’s preeminent public language – and those who speak it rule.
Blastland and Dilnot (2009: x)
The measures seemed, at first rather harmless, but, like cuckoos in a nest, they have grown
into monsters that threaten science itself.
Lawrence (2007: 583)
This article discusses the impact of academic metrics on scholars’ perceptions, behav-
iours, and identities. It does so by using the literature on social quantification to reflect on
the results of a pilot survey on academic metrics conducted on political scientists working
Corresponding author:
Stephane J Baele, Department of Politics, University of Exeter, Amory building, Rennes Drive, Exeter EX4
4RJ, UK.
Email: S.baele@exeter.ac.uk

Politics 37(4)
in two very different managerial environments – the French-speaking community in
Belgium where quantification is almost nonexistent, and the United Kingdom where it is
ubiquitous.1 By locating academic metrics within neoliberal logic, we are able to expose
and critically assess their most important working dynamics and impacts: first, they
standardize academic perceptions and behaviours (paradoxically producing specific
forms of deviance), and, second, they erode traditional academic identities
Three recent developments prompted this study. The first development is the ongo-
ing discussion about the establishment of a metrics-based evaluation of teaching qual-
ity in UK higher education – the ‘Teaching Excellence Framework’ or TEF. As this
project is gaining impetus despite heavy criticisms, it is important to have a clear idea
of what metrics would do to teaching – arguably the last aspect of academic work that
lacks strong metrics in the United Kingdom. The second development is more ethical
in character. Two years ago, Imperial College professor Stefan Grimm committed sui-
cide shortly after having received an email containing these words (our emphasis): ‘I
am of the opinion that you are struggling to fulfil the metrics of a Professorial post at
Imperial College […] and must now start to give serious consideration as to whether
you are performing at the expected level’. Much of the heated debate that ensued has
focused on the issue of metrics, either as a direct factor in producing an unbearable and
indeed deadly environment2 or more indirectly as a dangerous tool able to create such
an environment when misused by university management. However, these discussions
fail to fundamentally alter the way metrics are routinely designed and used today in
academia. A better understanding of how they work and why they can in some cases
lead to tragic situations is important to discern. The third and final development is the
emergence of a timid, yet increasing significant, reaction against simplistic academic
metrics. Several initiatives have appeared, from the San Francisco Declaration on
Research Assessment (DORA) calling for more accurate measurement tools instead of
generic metrics like the impact factor or H-index,3 to the establishment of a Bad Metric
Prize ‘to the most egregious example of an inappropriate use of quantitative indicators
in research management’,4 and more importantly the decision of the Australian
Research Council (ARC) to abandon journals ranking in its Excellence in Research for
Australia (ERA).5 It is worth evaluating whether this trend is a positive move or
whether it misses its target.
Academic metrics are no longer an epiphenomenon. They deserve a theoretically and
empirically informed analysis. Studies on specific aspects of academic metrics do exist
and have already provided a solid basis for discussion, but they tend to only explore very
particular aspects and tend to lack theoretical depth. The present article provides a first
attempt at correcting these shortcomings by examining the dynamics that underpin aca-
demic metrics. The central contention is that these need to be understood as a core com-
ponent of the expansion of neoliberal logics to the academic sphere (e.g. Molesworth
et al., 2010; Slaughter and Rhoades, 2004; Teixeira and Dill, 2011). It is thus to the litera-
ture on the neoliberalizing of higher education that we aim to contribute. More particu-
larly, our paper documents and provides a grounded reading of the ‘marketization’ of the
higher education system (e.g. Foskett, 2010) – a trend exemplified in the United Kingdom
by documents and policies like the 2011White Paper on Higher Education, Students at
the Heart of the System
(which among other things advocated for a stronger role for the
private sector in UK academia and called for a strengthening and expansion of regulatory
frameworks). It is the ‘consumer-based’ managerial narrative found in these documents
whose effects informed the TEF project noted above.

Baele and Bettiza
We proceed in two steps. First, we briefly explore the rise of the numbers-led govern-
ance that drove the expansion of neoliberal ‘governmentality’ – a term from philosopher
Michel Foucault that encapsulates the specific ways through which today’s government
works. We also situate metrics at the core of the capitalist logic, drawing on Gilles
Deleuze’s work on control. This framework allows us to highlight two key effects – or
working dynamics – of metrics: they standardize perceptions and behaviours, and they
re-shape identities. The presence of these two effects in academia, and more particularly
political science, is then systematically analysed and discussed in the second part of the
paper, which builds on the results of a pilot survey of political scientists working in
French-speaking Belgium and the United Kingdom (more specifically a Russel Group
University),6 by incorporating literature on academic rankings and on the ‘marketization’
of higher education more generally
Liberalism and the politics of numbers
Our central contention is that one needs to situate academic metrics within the wider trend
of numbers-led neoliberal governance. Academic metrics are only one instance of much
broader dynamics that are inherent to the rise of the liberal style of governance as exposed
by Foucault and the expansion of the capitalist logic as theorized by Deleuze.
Scholars like Hacking (1982), Rose (1991), and Desrosières (1998) have documented
the development throughout the 20th century of an ever-expanding web of state-run sta-
tistics on both the general population and specific sub-groups (e.g. criminals). The ambi-
tion of this literature was to further document and theorize Michel Foucault’s claim that
statistics play a central role in the way power works in advanced liberal societies (e.g.
Foucault, 2004: 104, 280). He argued that public policies today heavily depend on the
quantification of reality in order to establish standards of normalcy and deviance that
allow minimal intervention (an ‘economy of power’ as defined in Foucault, 2001a)
instead of a costly general surveillance of the population (as in authoritarian regimes).
Liberal societies establish a statistical norm defining the range of authorized behaviours
in each area (e.g. drinking, eating, sex, and health) so state power can concentrate on
outside-the-norm ‘deviant’ behaviours. When advertised by the government or associated
organizations, these social norms become more powerful than coercive laws as they end
up being internalized as morally desirable by citizens (Berns, 2009: 81). In this regard, the
art of today’s government has been called by Foucault (2001b) ‘governmentality’, to
highlight that liberal societies are governed through an extensive set of norms, most of
them dependent on a large body of quantitative knowledge about the population, to infuse
mentalities, shape behaviour and establish the limits of tolerable deviance (Dean, 1999;
Laborier and Lascoumes, 2005: 43). Numbers are thus today’s most prominent ‘technique
of power’, ‘integral to the problematizations that shape what is to be governed, and to the
unrelenting evaluation of the performance of...

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT