Top, quality?

1920px-The_Last_Supper_-_Leonardo_Da_Vinci_-_High_Resolution_32x16 copy.jpg
Leonardo da Vinci, “L’Ultima Cena”

A small linguistic adjustment could make a big difference to how we view academic performance.

Put simply, it’s this: whenever you are about to use the word “top” to describe some aspect of professional endeavour, substitute “quality” instead. Don’t talk about top labs, top papers, top journals, top institutions, but say instead quality labs, quality papers, quality journals, and quality institutions.

The reason is that “top” unavoidably suggests some kind of hierarchical ranking, and in today’s metric-obsessed age, anything that produces rankings produces degrees of discrimination that may not be helpful.

Take papers. Science is currently obsessed with the notion of top papers being published in top journals, resulting in an unseemly scramble to get papers accepted by a very small number of outlets who definitely – definitely! – do not hold a monopoly over high-grade output.

Imagine instead a system where the only point of demarcation is whether the journals are high-quality or not. Of course, this still implies a level of subjectivity, but it’s a much broader one where you basically separate outlets into two categories (reputable and disreputable), instead of an infinite number of gradations between them which has no reflection on the standard of work published inside.

In fact, such a system pretty much already operates at the preprint server bioRxiv, where the only barrier to posting is a quality control check. If such a system were also operated by all quality journals – and with the Review Commons initiative from EMBO Press, we already have the makings of one – then once a paper was deemed of good quality, the only question then becomes finding a fit in terms of content and readership. But the paper’s ultimate destination wouldn’t matter so long as it appeared in a reputable outlet.

As soon as the word “top” comes into play, it introduces a hierarchical subjectivity. This of course is where the nebulous extra dimension of “impact” comes in – something which is not only subjective, but also open to abuse through rank sensationalism (remember STAP stem cells?), and will largely end up tracking the mainstream simply because this is where the largest audience can be found. It’s no surprise that the probability of retraction scales rather neatly with a journal’s perceived position in this arbitrary ranking, which again has nothing to do with quality. 

Take universities. The press has been all agog recently as the latest set of university rankings and the universities themselves have been debasing themselves in their unseemly rush to trumpet their positions on this institutional hierarchy. Indeed, we’re so fixated on this ranking process that we forget that it’s not even a universal philosophy when it comes to the organisation of higher education – the whole concept of ranking universities is predicated (primarily) on the Anglo model of higher education, where every institution is trying to be good at every subject. 

Contrast this with the university system in Germany, where there is a far flatter hierarchy between institutions, and which regional specialisation is the norm rather than an attempt at across-the-board educational portfolios. There aren’t “top” institutions in the way that there are in the UK and the USA, because the emphasis is instead on providing high quality education in a small number of areas, allowing students to choose their institution based primarily on topic rather than ranking. It’s no wonder that German universities tend to be outperformed by universities from the UK and USA in the international league tables, because they are being asked to compete in a system in which they don’t belong. Ask instead whether the majority of students in the national system receive a “quality” education, rather than a small number of students receiving a “top” one, and you might end up with a very different panorama.

We talk about quality clothing but we don’t try to arrange individual fashion houses into a ranking order. We talk about quality music but we don’t rank music genres against one another. And we shouldn’t be talking about things being “top” in academia when all we can really say is whether they’re “quality”.

Darwin, as ever, got it exactly right: his admonition that we should not talk about lower and higher organisms, but simple and complex ones instead (an admonition that is also frequently overlooked, regrettably) implicitly acknowledges the cognitive pitfalls that yawn open once we introduce subjective and discriminatory terms like “top” into regular discourse. Doing otherwise is as farcical as Jesus producing a ranking of his top Apostles.

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