Should ScholarlyHub Adopt a Solidarity Currency?

A conversation between Sanli Faez and Guy Geltner


GG: So Sanli, you’re suggesting to create a solidarity currency for ScholarlyHub. What’s that about?

SF: We often hear that lack of funding for research has created an atmosphere of toxic competition and the way these limited resources are allocated has resulted in a winner-takes-all star system. This is to a large extent true, but I ask myself why should academics compete for money? Is that really the resource that they need most? I think not. Time to think, read, discuss, and experiment is in my observation a more severely scarce resource nowadays for academics. In fact many researchers write grants to “buy” freedom from their teaching duties or hire assistants to work on projects they themselves have no time for otherwise. Meanwhile, several other academic activities such as peer-review or traveling to seminars or sitting on selection committees cost a lot of time, too. The same researchers often do not say no to those types of work, even though they are not paid for it, because they see it as a duty or in some cases a source of prestige, recognition, or power. Researchers also engage in much voluntary work such as mentoring, organizing conferences, or commenting on each other’s work.

I ask myself, could this choice of time allocation be valued more directly and more transparently? Could it replace, in part, the dire need for cash? In my opinion, funding scarcity in academia is not as big of a problem as time scarcity. If the time spent by each researcher to help her or his community, and is given value based on democratically decided criteria, could be measured, then perhaps a community can exchange the services of its members with an alternative currency rather than banknotes, which are spread among researchers not always fairly and efficiently.

Time banking and other forms of solidarity economy are not new inventions. Recently I heard about the time-based currency introduced in Switzerland as a form of retirement plan. I doubt the idea is that new and maybe a historian can dig out some equivalent currencies of the past.

This of course only works if a critical mass of academics decide to share their available resources and time, and re-distribute it among themselves based on such a solidarity currency.

GG: I very much agree with the general picture you sketch and some of the key challenges we face. But how exactly will a solidarity currency be used, redeemed, leveraged, etc.? Right now, your contribution to the community generates lines on your CV and consequently prestige and social or even political capital, which can in turn help you get tenure, promotion, a salary raise, grants, sabbaticals, etc. It is, in other words, an expected part of your professional development. At my own university, such activities are even time-budgeted (however inadequately) into your job hours especially at the full professor level. What does this further type of quantification add? How do we obtain consensus and commensurability? And how would people who are not professional academics be able to benefit if at all?

SF: I think the standard CV is a very insufficient means of judging someone’s ability to contribute to the scientific community and I do not think I am the only one who thinks like that. It is mostly due to lack of other good tools that CVs are still so popularly used in hirings. Judging CVs is usually biased and subjective. The limited scope of CVs perpetuates outdated, biased, and historically exaggerated criteria like graduation from Ivy league universities or publishing in glossy magazines. That is one of the reasons that voluntary academic work like peer review is undervalued, while less productive work like giving the same talk in five successive conferences or spending so much effort to make it to the cover of a glossy journal has become so widespread. The rewards of building a shiny CV are also black and white. One either receives a 2 million grant or null. One either sits on multiple decision-making committees or has no voice. One either competes fiercely to be distinguished as a big shot or has to survive from the generosity of those who play the game and bring in fundings.

All these could have been different if a wider set of services and rewards were accepted and a solidarity currency can help in doing the bookkeeping of it. In such a system, teamwork can happen much easier and the evaluation middlemen like the managers and funders can be replaced with the active academics. If the academic output, credit, and services of every scholar could have been gauged with such a group of measures (indeed there is no need to have single currency) then the community could at any moment of time collectively decide that for example journal impact factor is overrated, or research into reproducibility must be more valued.

I must add that I do not suggest absolute quantification, but rather generating a variety of credits that each researcher gains based on scholarly activity and can exchange for what she or he needs at a specific moment or may choose to give away to crowd-fund another (possibly bigger) project. Everyone with an academic background who generated value for the community can earn these credits and spend it on whatever project that excites her most. We may then even get rid of the inefficiencies of the current funding instruments.

GG: You paint a rather polarized picture of the academic world, which does not ring true for many of the fields I know and work in. Indeed, one could even argue that at least in the social sciences and humanities elitism prevalent among Ivy League schools, Oxbridge, etc., at least used to ‘enable’ others to compete for grants in the real world, since some institutions’ funding situation makes snubbing possible and renders external funding a waste of time. (Surely that is less the case in your field, but let’s try to broaden the perspective as much as possible, since we both agree it’s a rich and complex world.)

More to the point is how you describe solidarity currency (or indeed, currencies) as a form of bottom-up evaluation and recognition. Some may truly appreciate the fact that you take the time to write book reviews, or develop syllabi and share them online, or have a great record with graduate or undergraduate students, and not simply your H index, (bullshit) impact factor, grant money, etc. Note that I take examples that do not necessarily fit the implied homo academicus in your narrative, because I am also interested in broadening the scope of who belongs to my scholarly community of practice, e.g. teachers, experts working outside an academic institution, etc. But herein lies the rub: how do you create commensurability? Or to put it differently, how do you prevent a popularity contest that is equally shallow and self-serving as the existing parameters (“Facebookification of academia”)?

SF: The star system we have in the West (and trying to be copied in Asia) is already very much like a popularity contest. We can all at least hope that the rules of the contest are fair and more transparent.

As for commensurability, it should come from the definition of the academic act itself, for example in the form of time spent on that act. I am not suggesting that every minute spent by every academic should be valued at a flat rate or even that all acts are equally worthy (one more reason to have parallel currencies) but I think we agree that there should be a reasonable ratio between the highest valued hours and the median. Furthermore, most works are read and reviewed by other academics and they should be able to value it fairly after reading and using that work (instead of speculation of how it may do so, as happens now in the hiring and funding circles). In the academic culture giving credit to someone else’s work should be meaningful (unlike the Facebook likes which are given for free, capitalizing on clickbait and endorphins). If the total credit each community member can give to others is limited, then it will be spent wisely.

GG: Ok, you’ve made two concrete suggestions here. Let’s see how that takes us closer to a coherent system. One equivalency (“metric”, if you’ll excuse my French) is time spent. Not everyone spends the same amount of time performing the same task, e.g. reviewing a paper or writing a book review, and that has to do with experience as well as attitude. But putting aside the relative weight of a given task in a specific (sub)field, I imagine that scholarly communities of practices could fairly easily agree on a key: how many hours or currency equivalent per task. They can also take a step further and agree on how and what credit may be spent on, at least within that community. Problems begin, however when you want to move between communities or use credit gained in one community by performing a group of tasks to acquire services your group currently (or never) will be offered by it. Let’s say a literature scholar wants to ask for a certain data analysis s/he has no access to (in terms of software and expertise) within their group. In principle, you could say that the service provider sets the tariffs. But what if the communities themselves are so different in terms of resources and standards, that the translation becomes a huge obstacle in itself. Perhaps one solution is to say that any cross-disciplinary transfer carries its own rewards, perhaps even from beyond the community?

One thing you at least implicitly promote here is scholarly mentoring at all stages. People (regardless of status) will be incentivized to comment on others’ work regardless of the work’s status, which very much fits in with the proliferating culture of pre-prints on the one hand, and the experimentation with post-publication peer review, on the other. There will be those, however, that would claim that you would thereby create a false appearance of equality, whereas, putting politics aside, not everyone’s voice in the conversation is necessarily of the same significance at a given moment in time, just like not every citation of a work reflects its usefulness (or obsolescence, etc.) in the same way.

I also very much like the notion that the credit is limited, just like the hours in the day, to avoid inflation. But how will you limit them? Time? People? Expertise? Task?

SF: Regarding the differences between communities, this is not a new issue and that is why we need currencies (plural). I think each mature community is capable of defining standards of scholarly contribution and credit. At this moment, distribution of funds between separate fields is either done directly by the politicians and funders, or indirectly by the students who follow these disciplines. This can continue, but new ways can also emerge if the communities really want to have exchanges. Just like two scholars who contribute to each other's work and distribute the credit by authorship, communities can also do that at the higher level of their currency exchange if they benefit from each other. Note that this does not really need to be quantified to the last decimal point and an unofficial acceptance of cross-disciplinary credit should suffice. This is not unlike the role that knowledge dissemination and science communication with public plays now in evaluation of scholarly activity.

As for the inflation control, like any other currency, there must be a mechanism for surplus redistribution and continuous recalibration of average productivity. There can be a tax in the solidarity currency for tenured academics or people who get major fundings because that puts them in a privileged position, partly built on the common efforts on the community in terms of knowledge creation. This is not an idea from space. Pilots and Medical doctors pay fees and take tests continuously under their associations and if a pilot stops testing and training, she or he will lose her/his license. As such they have more responsibility to maintain the communal space hence they should give some of their credit back to the system to be redistributed. This balancing mechanism can be tuned in a way that the winners do not take all, and no one has to walk the Pieter’s ladder only upwards. This is just an example but make it worth the name solidarity currency.

Also, there can be a universal basic right to research (the similarity to UBI is on purpose) which takes shape in forms of open access, travel grants, scholarships, or mentorship. If a community as a whole is valued by the amount of original knowledge it creates and maintains, everyone will be motivated to keep as many original thinkers and teamworkers inside the community. Like every commons, there will be free-riders but there are mechanisms to keep that under control just like the mechanisms that oversee all other aspects of academic integrity.

GG: This system’s preference for redistribution over accumulation is great. It would be important to have a check on how just objective/needs-based redistribution is in order to avoid people giving back to themselves e.g. through reallocating credit to a narrow group. Beyond that, I think there is enough here to begin hashing out a plan in a concrete way and give flesh to some of your proposals. It is a little bit tricky because we actually are not in a position to know what the means at our disposal are when we get off the ground (how does that milestone look like in practical and financial terms?). Maybe you’d like to give that some thought since it can actually help define a possible point of departure. There is also one other key issue: can individuals and/or communities opt in and out and if so how and at what intervals? Beyond creating exchanges between groups, do we need to create exchanges between solidarity and regular currency?

SF: The most significant means at academics’ disposal is their choice of what they spend their time/attention on. Funnily, time seems to be the most scarce resource these days among academics. I do not know of a systematic analysis that has looked into this feeling of scarcity, but intuitively, I think feeling busy has mostly to do with lack of focus. Either at the individual level, with the prominence of swim or sink attitude, or at the community level, with marketization of the universities. That for its own sake can be the topic of another chat. However, academics seems to be capable of devoting their time to a progressive cause, if that cause resonates with a critical mass that can keep the community they create afloat. I think the experience of PeerJ founder, Jason Hoyt, shows this is not as easy as it sounds.

In this line of thought, the equivalent of time-banking can be a good start. At ScholarlyHub, for example, peer review, subject to proper quality of reviews, can be a service that redistributes the time resources and at the same time add to the total value of the publications posted. I think every community can find its own ways of distributing their commonly contributed time and fair, clever, and democratic mechanisms for rating contributions of a group of people to a work or a collective mission are plenty. Other scientific social networks have also tried to bank people’s span of attention on their network. Endorsements and recommendations on LinkedIn is one example that comes to my mind. However, the added value of spending more time in those networks is usually not distributed among the network members. These network contributions are instead monetized, taken out of the network, and put in the pockets of network owners. For a solidarity currency, that rent-extraction should be made impossible by design.

GG: I for one am convinced this is something we should ask members to consider integrating rather than implement in the site as a default, given how diverse we want to be (indeed, to the extent that we may have communities that are not interested in actively peer reviewing, for instance). But it would help if you offered a possible blueprint, or set of instructions to those willing to think with you. How about that?

SF: Imagine that every member at the beginning of the year gets 100 SH credits, which they can spend on asking for services (e.g. review, advice, data sharing, license) from other members or allied services or donate to another member's project as a gift. Each member can also ask for loan or gift of SH credits from others or try to earn them by providing services. Credits that are unused after a certain period will be taken back and given to new or more active members. A new manuscript or proposal can also be valued by the community with the same credit system such that productivity is rewarded and front runners get more room for expanding their investigations.

That's it from us. Join the conversation and let us know what you think!

Tashina BlomComment