Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Significant International Reputation

As part of this week's academic theme, I want to consider an interesting standard for promotion to Full Professor: Does the Candidate Have a Significant International Reputation?

This might seem to be a bizarre standard, as the job of a professor in terms of research is to create knowledge, which sounds mighty high falutin', but basically to provide original contributions--add to our understanding of a topic or two or three (whether the research always focuses on one topic or changes topic is something one could consider). Being well known actually may not be that highly correlated with adding to one's field. To take a not-so-random example, I joke in class that Sam Huntingon, in his last couple of decades, served as a black hole of knowledge--destroying understanding and facilitating ignorance--and was more famous for it. Whether you buy my argument about Huntington, the point remains that the quality of the contribution may not be tightly related to one's renown.

Still, there are good reasons for universities to develop such a standard. Professors with better reputations, holding all else constant, are more likely to attract more and better graduate students, more outside grant money, more donations, better new hires, and simply more visibility for the department/university (and other stuff as well--must remember what that might be).

But then the problem becomes this: how do we evaluate whether a person has a significant international reputation? What is significant and what counts as international? Not to mention reputation for what? Let's try to take those in turn:
  • Significant: Statistically this would mean that 95% of the time ..... what? Perhaps 95% of the time, a majority of respondents in a given field would be able to recognize the name and identify the realm of research/theories that person has published. Seriously, this significant thing is pretty hard to measure, but I guess it would mean that more than a handful of people would know of the candidate's work and its contribution, but less than a supermajority.
  • International: Across how many countries must a reputation spread to count? Two? Three? 180? Moving from the US to Canada would have made my rep expand to two countries and thus qualifying for international? ;) Ok, perhaps more than just those two then. Is the significant modifying the international then, suggesting more than a handful of countries?
  • Reputation: Reputation for what? Publishing a lot? Publishing ideas, methods, findings that are interests? Persuasive? Ground-breaking? Field-defining? Life-changing? Law-breaking? Idol-recovering? Code-breaking?
Aye, there's the rub. This is an elusive standard. The way to get through this is to send out requests to top people in the field to serve as external reviewers, so that they can evaluate the contribution of the candidate. Notice, we are back to evaluating their contribution. I am pretty sure that the letter-writers are not asked whether someone is popular or not. This is not high school.

If external reviewers are not yet consulted (they come into play at the Dean's committee level at McGill), then one could focus on the publications--where has this person published (which journals, which presses)? How much? And that is usually the default--counting pubs--which is like counting dead enemy bodies in a counter-insurgency--the more the better, sure, but does it really measure progress/contribution? The idea is that if tougher outlets like your work, then it must be good. Not an unreasonable approach, but it is indirect to either contribution or reputation because journals have been known to publish crap and your reputation should not affect the willingess of your stuff to be published in journals with blind referees (books are not reviewed blindly--the referee does know who the candidate is, so reputation could facilitate book publishing).

If one really is focused on reputation, then one could focus on indicators of popularity and exposure, such as citations, usage in syllabi, invitations to join various select clubs (editorial boards, leadership positions in various organizations, awards, fellowships, etc), and/or invitations to represent one's area of expertise. Is this a complete sample, a random one, or just one that favors my case?

Of course, one could wonder what impact co-authorship might have on one's international reputation. I considered the issue of co-authorship the other day. The issue should only matter if co-authoring affects the candidate's significant international reputation--deadweight? Or contributor to knowledge.

That is my take--yours?

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