Should and Can Education Save the Planet? ECER2019 Keynote now online

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Last month I attended the European Conference on Educational Research (ECER in Hamburg this year. Around 3000 participants from over 60 countries attended the conference. Since the overall theme was ‘Education in an Era of Risk – the Role of Educational Research for the Future’ I had the honor of being asked as one of the plenary keynote speakers, as was my good colleague and friend Heila Lotz-Sisitka from Rhodes University in South Africa who, like myself, is a member of ECER/EERA’s subnetwork on Environmental and Sustainability Education (Network 30), one of the youngest and rapidly expanding networks.

The title of my talk was: Should and Can Education Save the Planet? In the talk I outlined the current global sustainability challenges form a learning perspective and I introduced the concept of sustainability-oriented ecologies of learning. I also introduced the notion of sustainability Bildung in which Biesta’s three tasks of education are reconfigured with Planet in mind to become eco-subjectification, eco-socialization and eco-qualification.

You can watch the full keynote here (also understandable for the deaf and hearing impaired as the talk was kindly supported with sign language).

Here is the official ECER2019 abstract of the keynote.

Education unwillingly has become a key mechanism for fostering economic development, innovation and growth. In the meantime, humanity is facing a range of sustainability issues that include: rising inequity, loss of democracy, runaway climate change and mass extinction. These issues can be so overwhelming that they can easily lead to apathy and despair which will only make them bigger. We appear to be at a tipping point where the decisions we make about how to live together will be crucial for the future of our planet. There is no better time than now to ask:  What is education for? What if education would serve people and planet rather than just or mainly economic interests?  Is this a role education should play? And, if so, what does such an education look like?

Based on emerging research and practices from around the world, I will sketch forms of education and learning that are: responsive, responsible and transformative in light of global sustainability challenges. Sustainability here is not seen as another subject to be added to an overcrowded curriculum, but rather as a continuous quest for finding ways to live more equitably, meaningfully and healthier on the Earth without compromising planetary boundaries and the futures of the coming generations. Such a quest requires a more relational pedagogy that can help establish deeper connections with people, places and other species. Such a pedagogy not only invites reflection on values and ethics, and the utilization of diversity, but also the critiquing and transgressing of the structures and systems that make living unsustainably easy and living sustainably hard.

 

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“We no longer wish to participate in the ranking of people” Ghent University wants to become a place where talent feels valued and nurtured

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“A university is above all a place where everything can be questioned.”

My last two blog posts have been raising some critical questions about the viability and legitimacy of the scientific ‘enterprise’ in neo-liberal times. The Publish AND Perish blog post led to a lot of responses from colleagues within academic but also from the publishing ‘industry,’ including from the CEO of MDPI, Paul Vazquez. Coincidentally, a few weeks later, Ghent University in Belgium released a statement in which the university declared to go  – what I would call – ‘off-the-grid’ of commodification, marketization and economic globalization by turning towards, autonomy, (local) relevance, responsibility towards people and, hopefully planet as well, by creating spaces for transdisciplinarity, boundary-crossing and collaborative action (perhaps I am filtering the statement using my own lens – apologies if I do so). Below some excerpts form the statement which can be found here as well: Ghent University’s New Pathway

Here is the message from Ghent’s Vice Chancellor Rik van de Walle

‘We are transforming our university into a place where talent once again feels valued and nurtured’

(17-12-2018)

Our university should once again belong to the academics, rather than the bureaucracy, writes the rector of Ghent University, Rik Van de Walle.

Ghent University is deliberately choosing to step out of the rat race between individuals, departments and universities. We no longer wish to participate in the ranking of people.

It is a common complaint among academic staff that the mountain of paperwork, the cumbersome procedures and the administrative burden have grown to proportions that are barely controllable. Furthermore, the academic staff is increasingly put under pressure to count publications, citations and doctorates, on the basis of which funds are being allocated. The intense competition for funding often prevails over any possible collaboration across the boundaries of research groups, faculties and – why not – universities. With a new evaluation policy, Ghent University wants to address these concerns and at the same time breathe new life into its career guidance policy. Thus, the university can again become a place where talent feels valued and nurtured. We are transforming our university into a place where talent once again feels valued and nurtured.
With the new career and evaluation model for professorial staff, Ghent University is opening new horizons for Flanders. The main idea is that the academy will once again belong to the academics rather than the bureaucracy. No more procedures and processes with always the same templates, metrics and criteria which lump everyone together.
We opt for a radically new model: those who perform well will be promoted, with a minimum of accountability and administrative effort and a maximum of freedom and responsibility. The quality of the individual human capital is given priority: talent must be nurtured and feel valued.
This marks the end of the personalized objectives, the annual job descriptions and the high number of evaluation documents and activity reports. Instead, the new approach is based on collaboration, collegiality and teamwork. All staff members will make commitments about how they can contribute to the objectives of the department, the education programmes, the faculty and the university.
The evaluations will be greatly simplified and from now on only take place every five years instead of every two or four years. This should create an ‘evaluation break’. 

 

We opt for a radically new model: those who perform well will be promoted, with a minimum of accountability and administrative effort and a maximum of freedom and responsibility. At the same time, we want to pay more attention to well-being at work: the evaluations of the supervisors will explicitly take into account the way in which they manage and coach their staff. The model must provide a response to the complaint of many young professors that quantitative parameters are predominant in the evaluation process. The well-known and overwhelming ‘publication pressure’ is the most prominent exponent of this. Ghent University is deliberately choosing to step out of the rat race between individuals, departments and universities. We no longer wish to participate in the ranking of people.

Through this model, we are expressly taking up our responsibility. In the political debate on the funding of universities and research applications, a constant argument is that we want to move away from purely competitive thinking that leaves too little room for disruptive ideas. The reply of the policy makers is of course that we must first do this within the university itself. This is a clear step in that direction, and it also shows our efforts to put our own house in order.
With this cultural shift, Ghent University is taking the lead in Flanders, and we are proud of it. It is an initiative that is clearly in accordance with our motto: ‘Dare to Think’. Even more so, we dare to do it as well.
A university is above all a place where everything can be questioned.
Where opinions, procedures and habits are challenged. Where there is no place for rigidity.

 

I am absolutely convinced that in a few years’ time we will see that this new approach has benefited the overall quality of our university and its people.

Rik Van de Walle, rector.

Frank Vazquez, CEO of MDPI, Responds to “Publish AND perish” Post

The blog on the commodification of scientific publishing, posted earlier in December, has received lots of interest from many concerned academics. Some people responded to the blog (see under ‘replies’ at the end of the post), some contacted me by email and several people offered alternatives to the current system that seems to invite strategic behavior, a focus on ‘production’ (number of papers published) and efficiency (short turn-around), rather than on quality that is supported by a critical review system. One of the responses to the blog  came from MDPI’s – the publisher of the journal Sustainability that is featured in the post – CEO Frank Vazquez. I am posting his elaborate response after the key messages from the blog. I do appreciate that he took the time to do this.

Note the blog post on this can be found here: Update – Publish AND perish: how the commodification of scientific publishing is undermining both science and the public good

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Key messages

“Everybody is writing, nobody is reading, everybody is writing for nobody.”

  • Academics are spending hundreds of hours a year, getting their work published, in peer-reviewed journals, providing free labor to commercial publishing companies.
  • The pressure to ‘produce’ and grow is huge, both in academia and in the publishing industry; this undermines quality and the university’s ability to serve the public good and, indeed, public trust in science.
  • Open access journal Sustainability publishes over 4000 contributions in its current Volume 10 – where most contributors will have to pay 1400 US Dollars* to have their work published. Its publisher MDPI has close to 200 journals working in a similar vein.’
  • Sustainability has 561 associate-editors from mostly public universities all working for free for the journal.
  • Of all industries, the publishing industry has the highest profit margin according to a recent article in the New Scientist.
  • A transition in science is needed to restore quality, trust and a culture of co-learning, peer-to-peer feedback and dialogue, and to unlock the the power of science in creating  more sustainable world.

* Sustainability just announced that the fee for having an article published in 2019 has been raised to 1700 US dollars…


Here you find the respons of MDPI’s CEO Frank Vazquez – without comment. Should you have a comment of your own, feel free to reply.

MDPIResponse_1

MDPI_Response_2

MDPI_Response_3

 

Update – Publish AND perish: how the commodification of scientific publishing is undermining both science and the public good

(since this post appeared 10 days ago it has been updated a few times which is why I am re-posting it)

Key messages

“Everybody is writing, nobody is reading, everybody is writing for nobody.”

  • Academics are spending hundreds of hours a year, getting their work published, in peer-reviewed journals, providing free labor to commercial publishing companies.
  • The pressure to ‘produce’ and grow is huge, both in academia and in the publishing industry; this undermines quality and the university’s ability to serve the public good and, indeed, public trust in science.
  • Open access journal Sustainability publishes over 4000 contributions in its current Volume 10 – where most contributors will have to pay 1400 US Dollars* to have their work published. Its publisher MDPI has close to 200 journals working in a similar vein.’
  • Sustainability has 561 associate-editors from mostly public universities all working for free for the journal.
  • Of all industries, the publishing industry has the highest profit margin according to a recent article in the New Scientist.
  • A transition in science is needed to restore quality, trust and a culture of co-learning, peer-to-peer feedback and dialogue, and to unlock the the power of science in creating  more sustainable world.

* Sustainability just announced that the fee for having an article published in 2019 has been raised to 1700 US dollars…


publish_or_perish_academic_publishing_ecology_cartoon

Let me apologise first, for this post has turned into a bit of a rant but I had to get if off my chest. Here we go:

The open-access journal Sustainability (IF 2,025) just published Volume 10, issue 11 which contains 508 papers of which – with some, often, negotiated exceptions – the authors, provided their labor free (that is, usually sponsored by public money to cover their salaries) will have paid its publisher MDPI 1400 Swiss Francs (about 1400 US Dollar) per paper. I looked into this after being invited by the journal to edit a special issue a few weeks ago. Below I share what I found out.

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Dear Prof Wals,

We invite you to join us as Guest Editor for the open access journal Sustainability (ISSN 2071-1050), to establish a Special Issue. Our suggested topic is ‘Higher Education and Education for Sustainable Development’. You have been invited based on your strong publication record in this area, and we hope to work with you to establish a collection of papers that will be of interest to scholars in the field.

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I have published in Sustainability (Impact Factor: 2,025) before and am currently also involved in co-editing a Special Issue for the same publisher, MDPI, but for another one of their journals called Water (Impact Factor: 2,069), so my initial response was positive. The invitation seemed serious and the journal seems reputable. It was not one of those almost daily invitations from a bogus journal that usually starts with: “Greetings!! We read your paper on social learning and believe you could make and excellent contribution to our forthcoming issue in Preventative Cardiological Medicine” (usually a journal on a topic I know nothing about) and ends with something like: “I hope you have good days ahead”. No, this one was serious and caught my interest.

I responded by saying that I found the proposed topic a bit outdated – there is a lot available and being done in the area of Higher Education for Sustainable Development (in fact there is an entire journal on the subject that’s been around for more than 20 years) but that I would like to focus on the role of higher education in sustainability transitions. The assistant-editor responded immediately that that would be fine and she sent me the template to fill out. I drafted a text for a Call for Papers with input from two colleagues and asked her if the text was fine. Instead of getting a reply I received a link to the Special Issue Announcement (will be removed shortly by MDPI at our request).

“Wow, that went really fast,” I thought. Then, just days later, I received an invitation from another colleague working in more or less the same field:

“We write to invite submissions of papers to a Special Issue of the Sustainability Journal focusing on “Innovation, Higher Education and Sustainable Futures” which we are editing. We think that the work you are doing in this area would make an excellent contribution to this journal.”

I was very surprised: basically, our SI would be competing with that of my colleagues which is on more on less the same topic! Why did the editors not check for overlap or connect us? I then decided to have a look at the journal’s special issue website and was shocked to find that at the moment “Sustainability” has planned about 200 (!) Special Issues  for the year 2019 have a look here….

Let’s think about this. Sustainability publishes 12 issues per Volume and integrates these ‘special issues’ in one of those issues. On average each issue will have 10 articles normally, I figured naively, based on old times when publishers would actually print journals, but then I started thinking: how can they cram in all these special issue articles in the 12 issues of a volume? This became clear yesterday when I received an advertisement from MDPI announcing its ‘release’ of Sustainability’s Volume 10, Issue 11 titled: Historic Rural Landscapes: Sustainable Planning Strategies and Action Criteria. The Italian Experience in the Global and European Context.

In the email the table of contents was embedded and I started scrolling down to read some of the titles. Then something odd seemed to be happening, there was no end to the list of papers; I kept on scrolling and scrolling… How many papers are in one volume I wondered… well 508!  Feel free to check this here.

So, I then checked Issue 10: 468 articles…, Issue 9:  401 articles, and noted that with every new issue the number of published papers tends to go up. On average the journal has published just over 380 articles per issue this year which will result in about 4560 articles. Now for some of the editorial papers and for some other papers, authors will get their open access fee waived. Let us assume that about 10% of all papers will have the fee of 1400 US Dollar waived. The total revenue for 2018 for this MDPI journal would be 1400 x 4100 = 5.740.000 US Dollar.

Now, figure this, MDPI publishes more than two-hundred journals varying from the Journal of Acoustics to the Journal of World Electric Vehicles, all using more or less the same business model. Here is a list of MDPI-s journals And let us not forget the other big publishers like Taylor & Francis/Routledge, Elsevier, Springer, etc. who use the same or a similar model.

Now, to be fair, I must say that scrolling down the ToC of Vol. 10 (11), I saw many intriguing titles and some very inspiring and high-quality authors: there is some good work out there and indeed it is open access – that’s what the 1400 US pays for after all… But all the journal needs to do is to invite lots of Special Issue editors (when telling this story to colleagues at an international conference, it seemed that everybody there had been asked recently to do a SI…), have a good manuscript management system with a big reviewer database and have a good website where papers can be easily downloaded, plus they need mechanisms to make sure that the impact factor of the journal goes up (that’s another blog post…). They don’t need to print anything anymore, neither do they need to do any graphic design work as nowadays people submitting need to do that themselves in accordance the journal’s instructions.

The job of the assisting editor is really one of acquisition editor: soliciting special issues and making academics responsible for gathering content, reviewing content, editing content, citing content, all for free! I would not be surprised if journals and editors receive bonuses based on growth in revenue. The whole industry is driven by targets, growth and expansion. This leads to a lot of pressure on everybody involved which undermines scientific quality. See below an example of this: “An Aberdeen University researcher resigned from a prestigious international journal after claiming she was put under pressure to do “mediocre” work.” Aberdeen researcher washes her hands off of overbearing publisher(excerpt below)

ScotishResearcher

To return to the journal Sustainability… since the first version of this post appeared there has been a lot of activity on twitter with lots of comments, including the one below.

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Sadly our ‘business’ of academia has been contaminated by the same modus operandi: an increase in the production of papers and number of citations and the growth of one’s ‘h-factor’ (see an older post about this here), is driving much of what we do today. Quantity over quality. Who has time to review, to read with intend and concentration, to organise a seminar or a debate? All activities for which no brownie points can be earned but essential for scientific quality.

Academics trying to stay on top of their game or trying to climb the tenure track ladder, are frantically trying to get their work published, all working for free for the private sector, paid for by, often, public money, then having to pay the journal to make the publicly funded research accessible for ‘free’ to the public. This leads to absurd performances: I know of colleagues, some with whom I have co-authored papers, who average one scientific peer-reviewed article per week, per week

As suggested already, all this also has implications for the quality of the work of course: as people only get rewarded for their production (published papers) and not for their contributions to assuring quality (e.g. reviewing and critical reading), the quality of the review process goes down rapidly as both the people working for the publishing industry and the academic industry need to achieve their targets and show growth to remain competitive and to climb the rankings.

There is a huge unsettling paradox in contemporary academia where everybody is writing while nobody seems to be reading, really, which means that everybody is writing for nobody. This also makes me wonder: what does it mean to be cited? In the meantime, all that time we spend behind a screen making letters flow from our brains, through our hands to a computer screen, is sponsored mostly by public money, which we then move to the publishing industry, where the top management and the shareholders are all anticipating the next quarterly earnings report, good salaries and bonuses, and good returns on investments.

HERE is a trivia question for you: what is the most profitable business in the world? You might think oil, or maybe banking. You would be wrong. The answer is academic publishing. Its profit margins are vast, reportedly in the region of 40 per cent. (Source: The New Scientist)

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Needless to say, this is a system that will run itself into the ground eventually. Science for impact factors in journals will need to transition towards science for impact in society. This will require that the world of higher education and academia becomes more autonomous and independent from globalising neo-liberal forces that undermine academic quality and integrity. Fortunately there are counter-movements in science seeking to disrupt this tragically resilient system such as the science-in-transition movement, the global alliance for community-engaged research  and the living knowledge network (send me more examples if know of nay, I will add them here). Furthermore, mainstream universities are beginning to recognise the problem and are beginning to emphasise the importance of healthy working environments, societal impact, citizen science and knowledge co-creation. More on this in another blog post.

p.s. you may also find the Beall’s list of predatory journals and publishers an interesting resource to help you check whether a journal or publisher you are considering is legitimate (also read the cautionary note stating that this is a rather dynamic and fluid world where a list like this one needs constant updating)