A few months ago, The Guardian published an interviewer with Peter Higgs, namesake of the Higgs Boson, or “God Particle.” In the interview, Higgs talks about how he wouldn’t be considered productive, or prolific enough to survive in today’s academic system, and wouldn’t have been granted tenure. The upshot of his statement is that the academic system today is obsessed with publishing, and would not reward a genius like Higgs.
However, I disagree with this assessment of the academic system. Being an academic is not about sitting in an overstuffed leather armchair and conjuring brilliant ideas from the ether. That’s the domain of the armchair philosopher. To me, being an academic means you have an obligation to (a) create ideas that are provable and testable, and (b) share those ideas with the world. There’s a saying that academics work “for the greater good” (as opposed to producing material gains). But to benefit the greater good, one needs to share his or her ideas. The “greater good” does not benefit from brilliant ideas that remain just that, brilliant ideas. Rather, the greater good benefits from the dissemination of knowledge.
To be sure, there are issues with the academic publishing business, And these issues certainly merit further discussion, and real changes. Nonetheless, peer-reviewed publishing still constitutes a very effective metric of academic productivity. And a university needs some sort of metric by which to judge output. After all, a professor is an employee of a university, and employees of all stripes and sizes are under the burden of demonstrating their value.
The ironic thing about Peter Higgs’ assertion is that he was employed by Edinburgh University for 36 years, largely because the university did not want to let go of someone who was a candidate for a Nobel Prize. In other words, every system will always find ways to accommodate unique individuals. Edinburgh University clearly recognized Higgs’ singular genius, and paid him a nice salary for 36 whole years, just to prove it!
In sum, there are certainly issues with academia, and with peer-reviewed publishing. Nonetheless, academics have a responsibility to those institutions which support them: To not only create brilliant ideas, but share those ideas, as well.
Now I’ll stop procrastinating, and get back to my writing….