The market's siege to critical thinking



Considerations on the loss of diversity at the Brazilian University

Throughout the 2000s, I lived an unusual experience that took me many years to discern and unravel. I had the persistent impression that there was a boycott of the publication of a work that I presented at an event entitled “As Humanidades na Universidade Contemporânea”, held at Unicamp in 2006.

The event intended to be a multidisciplinary forum for the discussion of questions about the future of the Humanities in view of the advancement of technology in the university environment. I proposed, therefore, to defend the autonomy of the practices of intellectual production and publication of the Humanities and Human Sciences. To do so, I sought a simple and direct language that spoke to all areas of knowledge and was convincing for non-humanists.

Thus, I downloaded data from the CNPq and CAPES databases for the first five years of the 2000s and submitted them to a multivariate statistical analysis. This made it possible to infer profiles of the different areas of knowledge based on the rates of the types of publication according to the taxonomies of the funding agencies. The argument was that the Humanities, Natural and Exact Sciences and Technologies exhibited different profiles regarding the preferred types of publications.

The methodology is simple and provides useful visualizations of your results. The first step was to graphically compare the raw rates of the indicators by doctor. Having confirmed their differentiation by area, I submitted them to two multivariate statistical techniques. The sources were the 2000, 2002 and 2004 CNPq censuses and the 2004 Coleta CAPES. As seen below, even the raw rates show clear preferences by area, as, for example, in the 2004 Census:

Figure 1:Annual rates of indicators per doctor in the 2004 CNPq census.
(Source: Albano, 2006[I])

It should be noted that the Natural Sciences clearly differ from the Humanities with regard to the rates of the 'article' and 'book' indicators. In the graph on the right, the article advantage is accentuated. On the other hand, it is observed that the book has a significant rate in the one on the left, although the flattening caused by the standardization of the scale makes visualization difficult.

It should also be noted that the Natural Sciences are more heterogeneous than the Humanities in terms of the importance given to 'complete works in events'. In the Biological and Health areas, this indicator shows consistently lower rates than in the others. It should also be noted that 'book chapters' is the indicator least sensitive to differences between areas: its rate is close to 0,5 per year in both Natural and Human Sciences. In addition, it distinguishes Sciences from Technologies, whose rate is consistently lower.

The multivariate statistics used group categories according to their proportions in the data set. The graph below shows the result of the first one, the analysis by clusters, applied to the 2004 census data. Note how it allowed unifying the visualization of the areas:

Figure 2:CNPq 2004 census indicators annual rates by grouped doctor.
(Source: Albano, 2006)

The other technique, principal component analysis, deduces orthogonal factors from correlations between subsets of data. Note that the chart below, taken from the 2004 Census, also expresses preferences by area in a unified and transparent way:

Figure 2:Factors 1 and 2 extracted from the annual rates of indicators from the 2004 CNPq census.
(Source: Albano, 2006)

Although the technique allows the extraction of more factors, the first two were sufficient here, as they explain most of the data variance. The separation of Sciences into Natural and Human Sciences is also clear, as well as the distance of both from Technologies.

The original presentation, as well as the article that expounded it, compared the censuses not only with each other, but also with the 2004 CAPES Collection. The analysis revealed that the five-year profiles were very similar, consistently corresponding to the pattern summarized above.

The reason I withdrew from publishing the article was its long wait for an editorial decision. As the search for information about the trial was ineffective, I withdrew it from one journal and submitted it to another – within the four years that I persisted in the purpose of publishing it. Symptomatically, I never received an opinion from any of them. I understood, then, that the postponement was a way to undermine the work by the inevitable aging of the data.

The reader familiar with academic indicators will have already noticed that the above rates, from just over 15 years ago, are much lower than the average for your area today. You may have also wondered whether the resulting profiles still apply at the new rates.

You don't have to go far to infer that the answer is negative. The simple inspection of a random sample of Lattes curricula from the most different areas shows the current trend towards standardization around the indicator that characterized the Natural Sciences at the time, namely: the article in national and/or international indexed journals. In the Human Sciences, there is also a tendency towards an exponential increase in 'book chapters'.

Therefore, it is not worth repeating the above procedures with current data in order to support this claim. It converges with the informal comments of many colleagues from different areas who have also been concerned about the loss of diversity in current academia. Far more useful is to examine recent changes in university life that may have contributed to this state of affairs.

I turn, then, to the advances of some standardizing trends that have been imposed on universities around the world in recent decades. They are: the commodification of bibliographic databases, the replacement of scientific theories by predictive models based on data, and the consequent distortion and devaluation of classic indicators of scientific production.

All these trends were on the rise since the 1960s, but they only consolidated when advances in information technology allowed the capitalist production system to reach a radical financialization. From then on, everything that was in digital form acquired potential market value.


From the sociology of science to the “science” of scientific evaluation

Only an academy already partially expropriated of its essential values ​​could remain inert in the face of the conversion of a sociology of science database into a powerful instrument of academic evaluation.

Let us first recap what these values ​​consist of. In this regard, the analysis of the philosopher Olgária Matos is precise and opportune: “To analyze the contemporary university, it is necessary to contrast the modern institution with the postmodern one, as well as its values ​​and purposes. The modern university and the nature of the knowledge it produced until the 1960s had the objective of forming scientists, intellectuals capable of understanding their craft within the complexity of knowledge and history. Therefore, when a scientist went public, he spoke about universal knowledge, even when the starting point was a specialty. At the limit of the deepening of the specialty, a point is reached where the boundary between disciplines dissolves. Knowledge maintained its autonomy with respect to immediately material and market determinations. Its temporality – that of reflection – was understood in the long term, guaranteeing the transmission of traditions and their inventions. In the modern university, the question 'what is culture for?[ii]

Let us now reflect on the compatibility of these values ​​with the most popular academic evaluation system today, the citation index.

In 1955, linguist and librarian Eugene Garfield created the first citation database, known as Web of Science ou web of knowledge. Initially, it was a tool to investigate the ties between researchers from various academic disciplines through their citations. It lent itself, above all, to the study of the path of influences within and between areas of knowledge.

After a few years, the Institute for Science Information (ISI), where the data were compiled, began to demand more and more infrastructure, generating management and financing problems. Garfield soon understood that he had a good deal in his hands and started to provide data to interested institutions. Finally, in 1992, the exponential increase in demand led him to sell the ISI to Thomson Reuters.

The index then received the necessary computer treatment and moved to a website, accessible by subscription, which updates citations in indexed journals of the most varied disciplines online. In 2016, a group company, Clarivate Analytics, centralized its control. The business became so successful that publishing giants such as Elsevier and Wiley created their own citation indices.

It is evident that this system does not match the long-term temporality of reflection. It is, in fact, a symptom of the subjection of the current university to the global publishing market. A complicating factor, pointed out by Mike Sosteric (1999),[iii] it's your invisibility. Incorporated into academic discourse, the citation index supports the transmission of orthodoxies, encourages opportunism and naturalizes inequalities. coercive forces of establishment compete with effectively academic affinities in choosing what and whom to cite.

In addition, the asymmetry of power between the so-called “hard” and “soft” areas attributes to “scientometrics” – the new discipline that intends to systematize academic evaluation metrics – absolute rigor and impartiality in the analysis of academic production. This is nothing more than a current version of scientism – the metaphysical position that holds that truth can only be known through science.

Well, scientism is sterile as metaphysics because it is incapable of generating corollaries that support it. It could only cope with rival conceptions of truth if it could point to ways to refute them. Doomed to failure, it resorts to the fallacy of confusing science with its methods. Thus, quantification and formalization, mere tools for formulating and testing hypotheses, become scientific guarantees.

The academy called post-modern by Olgária Matos is taken over by “scientometric” controls. People, institutions and even academic disciplines are hierarchized based on abusive uses of bibliometric indexes. Citations shape careers and provide access to project finance. Analogous productivity measures rank departments, faculties, institutes and research centers.

By “endowing mediocrity”, as Sosteric's essay accurately titled, these practices leave very little room for creativity. Investing only in incremental research is to neglect risky research, a historically recognized source of important scientific and intellectual shifts. The damage to critical thinking becomes incalculable.

Let us now see how these control mechanisms of digital capitalism influence the internal discourses of science.


More models, less theories

An inevitable consequence of the digitization of all the information previously stored in physical media, such as folders, files, drawers and safes, is that the categories involved become quantifiable and, therefore, mathematically tractable. Thus, the era of models based on data, whose starting point is regression, is inaugurated. Its usefulness resides in the fact that the behavior, past or future, of any time series of data can be estimated through a curve fitting.

In this context, the same scientistic fallacy that enthrones quantification in academic evaluation permeates scientific production itself. In science, its most common statement is 'to model is to explain'.

It is true that modeling can facilitate explanation, formalizing an aspect of a scientific theory and making its testing possible. But it is equally true that atheoretical models based on data only describe them. To contribute to explanation, a model has to be applied in the light of a frame of reference able to rationalize its results, interpreting them against a theoretically consistent background.

The profusion of data available in the digital world has accelerated the progress of statistical modeling and facilitated the development of artificial intelligence. If, on the one hand, these tools can promote theoretical advancement when used by scientists with sufficient ballast in the foundations of their disciplines, on the other hand, they can provide a niche for those who only seek to multiply publications at the expense of the 'magic of numbers'.

In this, as in other cases, the mystical character of scientism comes to the fore, betraying its kinship with numerology. As the last generation of universalist training is replaced, the academy is being taken over by increasingly technical cadres, who ask what a result is for before asking why to pursue it. Quantitative models based on data often serve only to promptly obtain publishable 'innovations' because they are potentially useful.

One of the most worrying aspects of this situation is the adherence of the Human Sciences to scientistic practices, in order to gain a more prestigious scientific status. No matter how meritorious the improvement of data collection is, the use of experimentation and measurement has no value per se. Without a theoretical framework that allows considering, among other injunctions, the limitations of collection and measurement methods, the interpretation falls into the void, grossly emulating science practices that deal with a much smaller number of variables.

Another means of increasing the number of publications and attracting citations resides in a form of transdisciplinarity that we can call Fordist. Specialists from different disciplines deal with the aspect of the data that belongs to them, receiving due credit, without, however, knowing the entirety of the research question under examination. Incidentally, it is common for this form of collaboration to reserve for the human scientist the role of annotating and classifying data for computational treatments whose functioning is unknown – such as, p. e.g., in setting up databases for artificial intelligence.

It is evident that no member of this type of team – not even the person responsible for the project – knows the place of their field in the history of knowledge, being, therefore, incapable of transiting between their specialty and the universal, that is, the questions timeless insights into the nature of the universe, life and humanity.

Lose knowledge, win the market. In these cases, the 'what for' is usually clear enough to be easily justified.


No forum, no breath, no critical thinking

It should be noted that no conspiracy was necessary for the market to gradually take over academia, as it has been doing for the last 60 years. As Shoshana Zuboff clarifies,[iv] Surveillance is an inescapable sequel to the globalization, digitalization and financialization of capitalism. Data on any object of interest to the consumer society becomes a commodity – as happened with academic citations.

It is now clear why my 2006 article caused so much discomfort among editors at the time. He was against the current of the globalization of academic performance indices: in the eyes of those co-opted by scientistic evaluation, his defense of autonomy between areas could harm the internationalization of our science. At that time, the article in an indexed journal already constituted the best bet in making visible the “impact” of the research, measured in number of citations.

Here the keyword is, of course, 'indexed'. The indexing of congress annals and books was still very outdated, as it still is today. In Brazil, the multiplication of events added to the rush to publish, consecrating the book chapter as a more visible outlet for ongoing research.

The very distinction between 'in progress' and 'completed' work has blurred. In the past, congresses were generally promoted by scientific associations in order to stimulate debate among peers. They constituted, thus, the forums for the discussion of research in progress. Different stages of a work were published in conference proceedings until they matured enough for submission to a journal. Additions and modifications from one version to another were often the result of academic debate in these forums. With the multiplication of meetings promoted by other types of associations, including research groups, this debate became dispersed, gradually losing steam.

Another factor that contributes to the loss of momentum in academia is the aging and eventual disappearance of the heirs of traditions based on long-term reflection. Without mentors, the generation in formation takes as leaders efficient, purposeful and jealous of the “impact” of their production – in fact, models for the new order of knowledge focused on the market.

Yet another factor undermining academic discussions is the devaluation of the printed book as a synthesis of research results. More visible is a review of the results that is sized to fit in an article or book chapter. In addition, the book considered useful to the clientele of the academic publishing market has a guaranteed outlet in the form of an e-book.

Together, the three factors we have just examined reduce scientific thinking to forms so accelerated that they are hardly noticeable anymore. The market wins, science loses, because critical thinking is not only necessary for the construction of historical narratives. It is also an indispensable component for the elaboration of new scientific theories.

Science apocalypse? Evidently not. It is just a setback in its democratization. Relegated the invention of innovative products and services to relatively peripheral academic institutions, the financial elite will not hesitate to invest in idleness that fosters ideas – so that scientific revolutions and their inventions remain where they have always been: in institutions that rely on the patronage of super-innovators. rich.

* Eleonora Albano is a professor at the Institute of Language Studies (IEL) at Unicamp



[I] ALBANO, EC Scientism and its reverse: Risks of uniformity in academic evaluation. Unpublished manuscript, 2006.

[ii] MATOS, O. Contrasts of the postmodern period in the country. Unesp newspaper. PDI special issue, May 2011.

[iii] SOSTERIC, M. Endowing Mediocrity: Neoliberalism, Information Technology, and the Decline of Radical Pedagogy. Radical Pedagogy, Online Issue 1, 1999.

[iv] ZUBOFF, Shoshana. The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: the fight for a human future at the new frontier of power. New York: Public Affairs, 2019.

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