Metricization, the SSCI Syndrome and Devaluing Books in Academic Sociology

Old sociology books
Old and in the way? (Photo: liikennevalo/Flickr/CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

As universities around the world mutate into businesses, the work that academics do is coming to be measured in ever more comprehensive ways. In academic systems like the British, every conceivable aspect of scholarly labor is now measured, recorded and assessed in numeric terms – customer satisfaction with teaching, citation frequencies and journal impact factors for publication, social media mentions, money made through research grants, and so on.

Nehring Corporate bugOne of the most striking consequences of the comprehensive metricization of scholarly labor lies in the distorting effects it has on academic publishing. I use the term ‘distorting’ advisedly, in so far as I would argue that forms and processes of academic publishing should be determined by intellectual, rather than bureaucratic, commercial or political, processes. Specifically, the distortion that I am referring to is academic managers’ growing preoccupation with articles published in a narrow band of journals, at the expense of other genres that have long played an important role in sociological debates, most notably books. While, on the one hand, the big Anglophone commercial publishers continue to churn out for-library, print-on-demand, pay-an-arm-and-leg-expensive hardbacks, edited collections have now fairly comprehensively fallen by the wayside in formal management appraisals of academics’ performance, and monographs seem to be headed the same way.

In East Asia, where I work, this trend has been usefully described as the ‘SSCI syndrome’ (see Chuing Prudence Chou’s important The SSCI Syndrome in Higher Education). The term refers to the Social Science Citation Index, a commercial index of ‘internationally leading’ journals in the social sciences, compiled by Clarivate Analytics, a subsidiary of the Canadian media corporation Thomson Reuters. As academic managers and policy makers in South Korea, Japan, China, and Taiwan have enthusiastically embraced academic capitalism, they have established strategies to quickly boost the standing of their countries’ universities in international academic rankings. Across the region, as far as social and sociological research is concerned, articles in journals listed in the SSCI are a centerpiece of this strategy.

For sociologists in these countries, that means that any other publication – a monograph, an edited collection, an article in a non-SSCI journal – are very likely to be discounted from performance evaluations for the purpose of contract renewal, tenure, promotion, and so on. This is meant to incentivize academics to quickly turn out as many SSCI-indexed publications as possible, for the sake of personal, institutional and national academic prestige, narrowly defined. Moreover, academics in, for example, South Korea and China, may be rewarded by their universities with a substantial financial bonus for each article in an SSCI journal. Conversely, the SSCI syndrome creates strong pressure on academics to abstain from any other sort of publication, and I nowadays frequently hear local colleagues speak of any sort of book publication as “worthless”.

This term — “worthless” — illustrates the previously mentioned distorting consequences of metricization of academic publishing. “Worthless” refers to the lack of rewards attached to non-SSCI publications in terms of money and the recognition of academic work by the bureaucratic and political apparatus that governs universities. Such a characterization of, say, sociological books as “worthless” elides their intellectual significance, and it thus manifests the anti-intellectualism that is so central to contemporary academic capitalism. The SSCI syndrome is, for no intellectually sound reason, threatening to obliterate an intellectual form – the book – that has for centuries been foundational to the development of not only sociology but of the social sciences and humanities at large.

It is, I would suggest, precisely this anti-intellectualism that has rendered critiques of the SSCI syndrome so very ineffective. While I have cited developments in East Asia, very similar trends have been transforming academic on a global scale, and you are likely to recognize the problem regardless of your location. Equally, the SSCI syndrome has, under various other labels, been widely discussed and written about at the international level beyond East Asia. Nonetheless, it has hardly been cured.

The SSCI syndrome ultimately appears to be a consequence of an array of financial interests, on the part of policy makers seeking the economic benefits of scholarship, of academic managers competing in the global marketplace of higher education, and of corporations like Thomson Reuters that aggressively market their products and services to policy makers and academic managers. As economic interests govern academic labor, it is easy for the intellectually questionable consequences of the SSCI syndrome to be ignored.

Daniel Nehring

My career so far has taken me to a fairly wide range of places, and this has allowed me to experience a wide range of approaches to sociology and social science. In my blog, I reflect on this diversity and its implications for the future of the discipline.

Over the last few years, I have also become interested in exploring the contours of academic life under neoliberal hegemony. Far-reaching transformations are taking place at universities around the world, in terms of organisational structures, patterns of authority, and forms of intellectual activity. With my posts, I hope to draw attention to some of these transformations.