Publication, Power, and Patronage

In 2007, the Higher Education Funding Council in England, the government body responsible for distributing funding to universities, revealed a national system to measure and compare institutions of higher education––the Research Excellence Framework (REF). Designed to assess the quality of research in institutions of higher education in the United Kingdom, the program sought to produce “indicators of research excellence,” provide a basis for the distribution of funds, produce a sustainable framework for research, and “promote equality and diversity.”[1] Ultimately, the REF studied and quantified research carried out in 154 UK universities between 2007 and 2013 and reported its results in 2014. The study included, as the council puts it, over 191,150 “research outputs”––journal articles, books, or conference proceedings.

Although universities in the United States and Canada have not yet been submitted to such a national exercise, many have begun to assess themselves. Several top universities have used Academic Analytics, a database of PhD programs and departments at 385 universities in the United States and abroad. Academic Analytics primarily provides data about academic publishing: books, articles, and citations. “Objective data,” claims the company, supports “the strategic-decision making process” at universities.[2]

For critics on both the political Left and Right, the increasingly data-driven nature of today’s university looks to many like a bureaucratic behemoth, an overly rationalized system that expunges the personal and particular in favor of the quantifiable and universal.[3] Such assessment regimes are largely seen as the delayed consummation of a disenchanted modernity as described by Max Weber almost a century ago. Like other modern institutions and systems, universities now use technical means to control “all things through calculation,” thereby ensuring, as Weber wrote, that in principle nothing remains “mysterious or incalculable.”[4] In the case of contemporary university assessment, the relative value and authority of individual scholars and institutions are directly linked to “research outputs.” Publications are discrete objects that can be counted and compared. They have become the academy’s ultimate markers of value, especially in the humanities and humanistic social sciences where other markers of quantifiable value such as grants and private funding are less prominent.

The REF and Academic Analytics are, as the latter insists in its publicity materials, “rooted in academia.” They recognize that authority and status in the modern university are bound up with publication. Reputation, status, prestige, legitimacy, and authority are related not just to the writing and uttering of words but to their publication through regulated channels of transmission. Few aspects of academic life are as normative as publication is today––both in its quantitative expectations (tenure equals a book and a few articles) as well as in its formal qualities (In this essay, I will argue . . . ). Publications are arguably, according to this logic, the most visible coins of academic social capital and institutional legitimacy.

In this sense, the REF and Academic Analytics are some of the more notable recent attempts to model the university’s own system of valuation. By simply measuring publications as discrete objects untethered from the practices and norms of the university, however, such analytic exercises provide only a partial account of what they claim to study—scholarly excellence. And yet to dismiss these quantitative studies as counter to the history and norms of the university and scholarship, as myriad scholars do as they lament the neoliberal university, is both historically false and ethically self-interested. Scholars, especially in the humanities, know surprisingly little about the academic publication system in which they participate. Such ignorance of this system only ensures the perpetuation of patterns that when revealed might normally be found distressing. We hope, then, to steer a middle course between, on the one hand, arguments that simply dismiss quantitative studies of publishing as such and, on the other hand, arguments that simplify, reify even, publishing metrics into an absolute measure of worth.

Our essay is an attempt to correct this deficit through a quantitative analysis of contemporary publishing patterns in the humanities, as well as a conceptual account of the historical relationship of publishing practices to the modern research university. The quantitative study is based on a new, hand-curated data set of forty-five years of publishing in four leading humanities journals that encompasses just over 5,500 articles. And yet, as we argue, the publishing patterns that our study reveals only make sense when situated within a longer genealogy of academic and university publication. Specialized scholarly publications have not always been the essential academic currency or markers of authority. The contemporary norms of academic publication have a long and complex genealogy in the scholarly and institutional practices that make up the history of the university.

Historically, university reformers from the eighteenth to the twenty-first century have touted publication as a corrective to concentrations of power and patronage networks. An increased emphasis on more purportedly transparent or objective measures provided by publication have long been cast as an antidote to cronyism and connections. As we will show, however, current data suggest that publication patterns largely reproduce significant power imbalances within the system of academic publishing. Systems of academic patronage as well as those of cultural and social capital seem not only to have survived but flourished in the modern bureaucratic university, even if in different form.[5] When, as our data show, Harvard University and Yale University exercise such a disproportionate influence on both hiring and publishing patterns, academic publishing seems less a democratic marketplace of ideas and more a tightly controlled network of patronage and cultural capital. Just as output-focused advancement is older than we might expect, patronage-based advancement is more persistent than we might like to acknowledge.

This essay, then, marks the start of a larger project that studies the role academic publication plays in shaping the creation and communication of knowledge within and beyond the academy. We are especially interested in how institutional prestige and patronage networks shape intellectual spaces and whether this influence should be seen as a norm to be defended or a problem to be addressed. The broader questions we want to ask, which we can only begin to raise in this essay, are, What are the epistemic effects of a system in which academic prestige is so unequally distributed, and, How might we, as an academy, foster a more intellectually diverse space of scholarly communication?

[Read the full article at Critical Inquiry or download a PDF Publication, Power, and Patronage.]

[1] See Higher Education Funding Council, “Research Excellence Framework” (2014),

[2] See, Academic Analytics: Benchmarking for Academic Excellence,

[3] See, for example, Wendy Brown, Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution (New York, 2015).

[4] Max Weber, “Wissenschaft als Beruf,” in Max Weber, Schriften zur Wissenschaftslehre (Stuttgart, 1991), p. 250.

[5] We will discuss these terms more fully in the conclusion. For a now standard discussion of cultural capital in academia, see Pierre Bourdieu, Homo Academicus Stanford, Calif., 1990).

chad wellmon

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s