The other day I was watching an hour long interview [interview in Croatian] with a young Croatian philosopher. She commented on all kinds of things, but her comments about the functioning of science and the academic system in Croatia struck me the most. When her interviewer asked her why the Croatian academic system can't keep its younger scholars and researchers from emigrating, and even more so, can't attract foreigners to come and work in Croatian science, she advanced a couple of theses I find problematic. Not only problematic, but actually revealing the crux of the issue facing Croatian social science and the humanities.
I'll paraphrase and cite some of her points, in my translation, and then discuss them shortly.
We [Croatian academics] brag about publishing something abroad, in high impact factor journals, instead of attracting the best scholars to our lands, or more figuratively, to our journals.
I think this sentiment is romantic, in the way most patriotisms are, and that it fundamentally misunderstands how the global academic system producing the humanities and social sciences works. I wrote about this on the example of the language of science and what's the relation between peripheral academic systems and the languages they operate in, and whether it is good for them to be oriented inward or outward. I'll reiterate some of the arguments from that text in explaining why the interviewed philosopher's perspective is problematic.
Closed, small national systems of science are not good for academic standards
National academic systems can be small or big. An example of a small system is the one in Croatia, Estonia, The Netherlands; an example of a big one is the one in Italy, Germany, France. They can also be inwardly or outwardly oriented. An example of an inwardly oriented ones are Croatia and Italy; outwardly oriented ones are Germany and The Netherlands.
Quality of academic work is guaranteed by continuous criticism and debate between peers. Here's an example. If you're a garbologist studying garbage in the Soviet Union, you need to be in constant debate with other specialist garbologists in the Soviet Union successor states and outside them. A name for this community of experts (of various degrees of specialization) is an invisible college - they communicate through conferences, journals, blogs, workshops, events, research visits, exchanges of students, journal and book reviews, etc.
Big academic systems have a lot of scholars and researchers in them, of varying kinds of specializations. The size, meaning the number of scholars in the system, allows for two things: a) less of a personal connection between individuals (you can't know everybody, or even if you know them, you can't have a close personal or professional connection with all of them) b) large pool of experts on great many topics. This allows even inward-looking (closed) academic systems to keep a certain amount of rigor that ensures quality in the long run, if they are big enough. You're bound to run into somebody who disagrees with you, who criticizes your work, advances a different conception of your science or field; and you will probably need to develop some way of talking to them and disagreeing in a civil way.
Small national systems can't deal with this if they're closed. They need to depend on other systems to constantly refresh and reinforce standards. Meaning that being closed (inward-looking) AND small is fatal for academic standards. Croatia maintains such an academic system (quoted from my previous text):
Croatian social scientists and humanists publish in Croatian journals, and with that, usually in Croatian (even when the journals are indexed internationally). This publishing practice is used to maintain a particular kind of academic ecology - one that is mostly isolated and inward looking. The above cited comprehensive bibliometirc analysis included 272 journals in Croatia. In a country of about 4 million people, one has 272 internally maintained journals for the community of scholars in the social sciences and the humanities.
Even if you agree that closed and small academic systems can't ensure quality, why would making your own journals into competitive venues for high quality international work be a bad thing?
Academic systems are prestige economies
Whether we like it or not, academic systems are prestige economies. Journals (for academic articles) and academic publishers/university presses (for monographs i.e. academic books) are indicators of the work's prestige. Academics try to publish in the most prestigious venues. This system is dysfunctional and leads to all kinds of perverse incentives that do the very opposite of ensuring quality. Its dysfunction, however, is completely irrelevant for the vast majority of Croatian social science and humanities because they do not participate in it, either through publication, editing, or reviewing in it. Croatian academics, because of the way that their system is closed, for the most part, don't even sit at the tables of the invisible colleges of experts in various specializations. Croatian garbologists almost exclusively talk to other Croatian garbologists. At most, they read non-Croatian garbologists. They are not systematically integrated in the garbologist invisible college and do not participate fully, or at all, in it.
This makes academic prestige economies systematically inaccessible to Croatian scholars. Some research groups and some individuals break away from this through their own social networks or educational background or sheer genius, but most do not.
The idea that an isolated peripheral academic system that publishes in a minor language will attract the "best" from the global system is completely misguided. A negative and hostile critic might call it insane.
Poverty of academic debate in Croatia
The sheer poverty of the academic discourse in the humanities in Croatia is exhibited in the way the young philosopher commented on a quite ferocious debate about the country's star humanities' program: Integrative bioethics. Integrative bioethics is a kind of bioethics which receives a lot of funding in Croatia, but it is seldom done in other places. Some Croatian philosophers have voiced strong and fundamental criticism of this research program and called it pseudoscientific. This debate, according to the interviewed philosopher, often degenerates into ad hominem disputes outside of the standards of civility in an academic discussion. Arguing for that, she said:
To me, what is even more fascinating [than the arguments that integrative bioethics is a pseudoscience] is the phenomenological level: A person who has the opportunity to do such interesting things in a field of thought as infinite as philosophy has dedicated their life and existence to the destruction of somebody else's projects. That fact speaks for itself.
I'm not interested in getting into the discussion whether integrative bioethics is pseudoscientific or not. I'd rather leave that Popperian exercise to the bioethicists. What I'm more interested in is this academic attitude: So, in philosophy, all philosophers should just continue on their merry way, pressing on with their interests with no inclination to pit their research programs and ways of thinking against those of other peers? Criticism is destruction. And indeed, for a small, inward-looking, closed system like the Croatian humanities, it is. In that, I agree with the interviewed philosopher: Croatian academia is a deeply divided community. I would add that this is the case because it cannot generate academic standards on its own. It's too closed and inbred and personal to ever be critical enough.
Further muddling the issue is also the fact that the question is political. She said:
I would never switch places with a scholar at a Western European university, because there science (even philosophy) has become managerial work in which one is mostly interested in attracting funds.
This one I found the most interesting. It recognizes something that has been discussed in the centers of academia's prestige economy for decades now - the problem of perverse incentives, privatization, precarity of the academic workforce, etc. The national systems at the center of global academia have issues and these issues reflect on the kind of work that is done. She then jumps to the conclusion that since in Croatia one doesn't have problems like that, it must mean that the situation is better. Well, yes, it is better for an individual who has landed a stable contract at a Croatian university. For that individual, especially if s/he isn't prone to questioning authority, the standards of academic quality set before you are minimal and easily achieved. For the system as a whole - either in the educational goals achieved (producing reflective/specialized/competent graduates, pick one or more that your political outlook might set as goals) or scientific goals (producing critical/widely read/progressive/innovative/groundbreaking knowledge; again, pick one or more that your political outlook might set as goals), uncompetitiveness sets the stage for a spiral of negative selection. By not wishing to reform your system to be more competitive and outward-looking, you avoided one (for you at this stage hypothetical) obstacle but stepped into a swamp of the already existing one that doesn't have a solution.
Not an ad hominem, but a critical discussion of the academic system
My aim wasn't to attack the interviewed philosopher for her opinions. I just plucked out some of her points of view and tried to make sense of them. I am myself the product of the academic system she is defending and perpetuating, but with the current benefit of being outside of it. These points of view I identified do not say much about her, but about the poverty of thought that is given currency in Croatian academia in the name of patriotism, or fear of change, or both. I'll finish with the words of the current Croatian Minister of Science and Education, taken from her interview with Nenad Jarić Dauenhauer. Dauenhauer asked the minister (translation mine):
The new rules for advancement and selection of candidates in the academic system make hiring foreigners impossible in the humanities considering that the candidates need to have 25% of their publications in Croatian? That can't be the way to increase quality and visibility of our humanities in the world. Can't you do something about it?
Her reply showcases how pathological the system is. The rules for judging quality are set by the academic community itself, and that academic community is interested in preserving the status quo:
The new rules were not written by the ministry but the National Council for Science, Higher Education, and Technological Development which is independent from the ministry. So, only that council can do something about it.But, the incentive for change needs to come from the scientists themselves, who are not afraid of international competition in their own scientific discipline. Of course, I understand and support the care for the development of Croatian professional nomenclature, but that cannot stand in the way of scientific excellence.
On one side, we have the neo-liberal prophets of scientific excellence. On the other, the last beacon of hope, the Croatian academic system. If only the problem were that simple.
Note on the quotations from the interview: All the quotations from the interview were written down and translated by me. I tried to paraphrase exactly and faithfully, so as to avoid making straw-men, considering the words were taken from a video. If I misrepresented any point of view, please call me out and I will try to fix it to the best of my ability.