Reforming research assessment and culture is a hot topic in higher education, particularly how these issues relate to research funding. I discussed the HELIOS initiative in my last post, which is a funder-led approach to incentivising open science practices in North American tenure and promotion guidelines. Now, in the past week, EU science ministers have agreed on a plan to facilitate coordinated reform of research assessment processes.

As I noted last week, research assessment reform is often predicated upon nurturing cultures of open science based on encouraging researchers to share the materials and underlying processes behind their research. In doing this, the argument goes, research becomes ‘democratised’ and ‘collectivised’ by its ability to bring more people into the scientific conversation through the removal of price and permission barriers to the reuse of materials. Open science, I argue, is an overly resource-focused approach to the knowledge commons (free code, data and publications), rather than one focused on the relationalities and different possible forms of organisation in how these knowledge resources are produced. In addition to freely available resources, these alternative relationalities are vital for a more emancipatory university.

But emancipatory from what? Underpinning all these approaches to assessment reform is the brutally competitive nature of marketised higher education and the fact that precarious and exploited labour props up so much of what the university does. To this extent, open science is primarily a labour issue, not an epistemological one, although it is rarely approached by policymakers in this way. Knowledge production does not benefit from precarity or poor working conditions, not least due to the way they turn researchers into individuals competing with one another at every turn for scarce resources. If open science is to have any meaning, then, it must be grounded in a politics that is emancipatory from capital and the problems of researchers being oriented around capital at every point.

So despite there being an often touted association between open science and collectivity, or the democratisation of higher education, this association is weak at best, but especially when promoted by senior managers and policymakers — i.e., those with a stake in maintaining the neoliberal academy. A truly collectivising approach to research assessment reform would foreground the labour issues associated with contemporary higher education under the assumption that open (or better) science would follow from less individuation and more collective governance over what the university is and does.

I have argued elsewhere that the push toward open access, while regressive in many ways, frees up resources that allow for more progressive and socially just pockets of activity in the margins. Being able to squat within the discourses of efficiency, openness, and other such concepts, affords the capacity to experiment with politically exciting approaches to common and collectively-managed endeavours, even while the profiteering and market-making associated with open access publishing continues apace. Is there a way for us to benefit from the push for research assessment reform in the same way by foregrounding these labour issues and radically reimagining what knowledge production and dissemination could look like?

Part of the problem with policy-led approaches is that they fix and lock down what ‘openness’ is and intends to achieve, while also forcing researchers to conform to this definition and comply with its demands. Yet openness itself, as many have argued, facilitates and requires experimentation, particularly around the forms of organisation required to facilitate the kinds of relationalities that could help us build collective power in higher education. This, I argue, is what research assessment reform should be based on: building the capacity to explore and imagine different ways of producing knowledge, not simply reworking incentives towards open publishing, etc. In many ways, this means leaving behind assessment and replacing it with capacity building (as we’ve argued for in a different context elsewhere) or something altogether detached from the assessment of individual ‘performance’.

For the most part, this vision requires radical thinking — which is why so many incremental approaches to assessment and culture reform fall flat for their tendency to rehearse all the pre-existing issues with the old system. My argument is simply that no one really knows how to best reimagine the new forms of organisation needed for more ethical knowledge production (but many people could give it a good shot given the opportunity, especially the very people currently so exploited by precarity). It involves bringing people together in a variety of ways, sustaining their collective efforts, and not continually dividing them up into individual units to be assessed at every possible turn. This also entails the ceding of control from policymaker to smaller, decentralised collectives of knowledge producers…which is probably a tough sell to the average policymaker.