The Key To Fixing Service Related Problems is Actually Valuing Service

It is no secret that academia, by and large, does not value service work very much. But service work is hugely valuable. If you don’t like to read long-winded things, you could stop reading now. Everything else I have to say is really going to come back to this simple point, because you can’t fix any problems that relate to service work, if the people who reward people for doing things don’t start rewarding people for doing a good job at service work.

There was a big thread at Daily Nous, suggesting that a public database of referees and how well they do, would be helpful. I don’t love that proposal because it is all stick and no carrot. And also, because you get a reverse Matthew Effect problem for it. We all know the reverse Matthew Effect for being good at service. You’ve seen your clever/inept colleague whose learned helplessness at service tasks means no one will ever consider giving them important or onerous service work to do, and your efficient, effective colleagues who are good at getting service work done, and so, they are rewarded, not with actual rewards, but with a larger share of the service work. This would, perhaps be okay if doing additional service work counted for something when it came to promotion, tenure, job prospects, raises…anything. But the only thing it is good for is being asked to do more service work (and, of course, helping keep the entire infrastructure that everyone else depends on in functional order).

None of what I am saying here is new or insightful. But, go back to the first sentence for a moment. Unless you are on board for abandoning pre-publication peer-review, then, you should recognize that referee work, for example, is super important! It’s a crucial part of the publication process! But no part of our training, job applications/evaluations, promotions, etc. would be even slightly sensitive to whether someone literally declined every invitation they ever received for refereeing. No part would distinguish between someone who referees quickly and effectively, providing helpful reports that editors appreciate, and one who is delinquent and provides useless reports. Assuming that refereeing time detracts from time you might otherwise spend on “your own research”, the person who spends less time and does a worse job, or simply declines all requests, would, presumably, on average, do better, in the system as we run it. All of our incentives discourage people from being referees or prioritizing the work of refereeing (this is not a unique feature of refereeing).

My outlandish view is that a precondition for actually solving problems on this front is to start treating this work as though it matters, and is important, and to start genuinely valuing it in proportion to the value it merits. If we did that, I think a lot of the things (such as tracking how much of it people are doing, and whether they are doing a good job) would follow along naturally, because those are things we just do with the things we care about.

Anyway, I don’t think people are going to volunteer for more ways to be tracked or assessed, until there are benefits that accrue to being good at the thing being tracked or assessed. We have to value the thing first. Which is a fine thing to do, because it is valuable.

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