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What's all the fuss about SSCI?: The Pros and Cons of Using SSCI as a Benchmark of Productivity in Taiwan.
Saturday, December 21, 2013
Any "I" Monsters Hiding Under Your Bed?
When I was in Taiwan last month, I gave a talk to folks at a seminar for the National Science Council (NRC) Research. My talk was titled, “A Mixed Methods Look at Self-Directed Online Learning: MOOCs, Open Education, and Beyond” (Note: I gave 13 talks when in Taiwan over a 2 week span.) The event was held at National Taiwan University (NTU) in Taipei. NTU is the top university in Taiwan. It was my second time speaking there; the first was in July 2005. It is a very lovely university to visit and on my recommended list of places to visit when in Taiwan.
My good friend, Dr. Hsiu-Ping Yueh invited me to speak at this event. She wanted me to talk about my research on MOOCs and open education. She noted that many in attendance would also be interested in hearing my views about SSCI (Social Science Citation Index). I said sure and remembered that people in Taiwan (as well as China and Korea) tend to use SSCI for promotion and tenure as well as bonuses and other academic distinctions. It seems that universities in East Asia increasingly utilize SSCI as a means of denoting status and success. They seek to increase their university rankings and see SSCI publications as a key means for accomplishing it. So I decided to allocate part of my talk to: “The Pros and Cons of Using SSCI (Social Science Citation Index) in Taiwan.” There definitely was much interest in this talk and topic. Still, I had to remind myself that I had only an hour scheduled for my keynote talk on “MOOCs and open education” and Q&A and other my notes on SSCI. One hour…that was it. When I was done with my keynote, there were about 5-10 minutes that remained for me to discuss my ideas about SSCI.
I did the best that I could. Before arriving at NTU, I interviewed people whom I met during the previous week in Taipei, Kaohsiung, and Hsinchu for their views on the intense focus on SSCI in Taiwan and East Asia. I talked to graduate students, postdoctoral researchers, faculty members (both new professors as well as senior ones), researchers, academic staff, faculty spouses, and others. Quite a few people were quite willing to tell me what was on their mind. I took notes and read from a summary of those notes for those final 5 or 10 minutes of my talk when at NTU.
This was not as easy as it sounds. Most of my notes were chicken scratch since my handwriting is terrible. Fortunately, I had 90 minutes on the bullet train that morning when coming up from Kaohsiung in the south to read and reread through these notes. During this time, I rewrote some of these ideas and reorganized my list. (Note that I brought these notes back home with me and they sat on my desk at home for over a month now. In fact, I am using them for this blog post and pro and con lists below.)

I should also mention that the talk was well received. Many people in the audience came up after it to agree with or add to several points I made. Some wanted to simply chat about SSCI in general. Several others sent me positive email comments later that day or week. One person later pointed out that the "I" monster in Taiwan not only includes SSCI but also SCI (Science Citation Index) and A&HCI (i.e., Arts & Humanities Citation Index). This individual thought that there were huge losses from playing the "I" game. In particular, this person stated that this three-headed "I" monster or beast "has totally slayed Taiwan's merit and value system for Taiwanese scholars and professors." He/she also argued that the higher education system in Taiwan has definitely not benefitted one ounce from such a system. In fact, just the opposite has happened from his/her perspective. As this person put it:

“Some universities even have adopted an “I” point system, i.e., the promotion and merit of a professor are based on the number of points accumulated by publishing a certain number of “I” articles. One very “strange” requirement in Taiwan’s academia is that a doctoral student is not able to graduate without accumulating enough “I” points. Some public universities even set a certain number of “I” publications or points as their main Ph.D. candidacy requirement. In this way, the doctoral students in Taiwan, in effect, become “I” slaves, working for their “I” professors. Similarly, there are some public universities which accordingly entitle “distinguished” or “chair” professors with salary raises using the tax payer’s money based on “I” points.”

By the way, when I was in Taiwan last month, I was told by several senior professors who were not participating in the “I” club that the higher education system in Taiwan has become an “I” system. This “I” system has been breeding more and more “I” monsters that need to be slaughtered. Instead, it is the 160 or so universities located on that small “I”sland that are being strangled. Remember those scare tactics in “Monster University.” That was funny…but, as I found out, this situation is not.
I am willing to bet that my colleagues in Korea and China might have similar remarks about all their "I" (SSCI, SCI, and A&HCI) monsters hiding under their beds and in their closets.

As you will see, during my brief talk, I mentioned 12 pros and 27 cons of the use of SSCI publications (and SCI and A&HCI ones) as a measure of researcher productivity in Taiwan. Keep in mind as you peruse the list below that I am not an SSCI expert nor do I ever plan to be. Nevertheless, many of my current and former students like to publish in SSCI journals in my field (e.g., The Internet and Higher Education, Educational Technology Research and Development (ETR&D), Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, Computers and Education: An International Journal, Journal of Educational Technology and Society, the British Journal of Educational Technology (BJET), Interactive Learning Environments, etc.). I am sure that I am forgetting a few really popular ones. The SSCI list is searchable. So is my list of educational technology and e-learning journals and magazines.

As I mentioned, the points listed below come from a short speech made at the end of a keynote talk to researchers attending a special event at NTU. They are not intended to be the final word on this topic. Also remember that I was speaking in Taiwan. Hence, the pros and cons listed below are filled with context based on being in Taiwan. Along those same lines, many of these points will relate solely to Taiwan and may not pertain to your country, institution, or situation. Finally, I should point out that I have many SSCI publications but do not target such journals. Typically, my co-authors or colleagues want or seek out such journals, not me.

First I will list the Pros:
1.      Goals/Target: Using SSCI as the ultimate goal for publications provides a focus or a target on which to strive.
2.      Common Lingo: SSCI is a recognized and commonly understood criterion or measure of excellence.
3.      Measure/Benchmark: Using SSCI journals as a measure of excellence provides a benchmark of performance for monthly, quarterly, or annual performance reports and other reviews.
4.      Accomplishments: With measurement comes high and low scores or ratings. Once established, scholarly accomplishments can be analyzed, compared, and celebrated.
5.      International Comparisons: The research in Taiwan can be compared to that in other countries or locales. There might be annual comparison reports by region, province, state, or country.
6.      Sense of Pride or Identity: Individual researchers as well as specific organizations and institutions or entire countries can take pride in being at or near the top in SSCI rankings within a specific field or discipline or across fields and disciplines. Many or most individuals who are recognized will undoubtedly feel an emotional uplift or sense of pride from some posted accomplishments and recognitions from others.
7.      Boost Journal Quality: The stiff competition from the emphasis on SSCI publications will likely reduce the published acceptance rates of higher ranked journals, and, hence, most likely have a positive impact on journal quality (albeit as determined by those doing the SSCI rankings and ratings).
8.      Higher Level Articles: Related to the point above, in general, researchers will be forced (or encouraged) to write higher level articles. This point will not hold for all journals or articles, but overall, there should be a noticeable difference in journal article quality as a result of stiff competition to get published in an SSCI journal.
9.      Community of Scholars: Using SSCI as a standard or benchmark encourages a community of scholars to form who focus on such journals. They will discuss publication options, guidelines, experiences, changes, and perceived future trends. In effect, a group of people will bond together as a means of helping each other reach such goals (especially for oneself or one’s research team or department).
10.  Research Status or Prominence: Taiwan (and any other country which successfully increases its rankings in SSCI or similar journals) will elevate its international status, at least from a scholarly or academic perspective.
11.  Impact Factor: With the focus and reporting of SSCI publications will come increasing interest in impact reports and other impact measures or factors. As such, researchers and scholars as well as their respective institutions and organizations will more quickly become cognizant of the impact of individual articles as well as average impact rankings of their departments and programs.
12.  Stricter Review Process: Articles will be subjected to more rigorous standards than many journals now employ. Such firmer or more stringent review processes may not be observed across all journals, but overall there will be stronger standards in place.

Now I list the Cons:
1.      Research Publication takes Priority over Value Creation: Several people mentioned that with the focus on SSCI, researchers and scholars will be pushing out publications without much reflection on the true impact of each article or whether they are making a difference in the real world.
2.      Research-Practice Gap: Similar to the first point above, many people whom I spoke with noted that the gap between research and practice widens with this concentration on SSCI publications. Researchers must try to conduct research and publish as much as possible in such journals. As a result, there is a sense that they care little for the implementation of their research findings and ideas. And the gap continues to widen between researchers and practitioners with each passing day, month, and year. Is there any hope Obi Wan Kenobe?

3.      Publications Skewed toward those with Technology Backgrounds: Some people will publish in journals that they never considered before simply because they can. For instance, those with computer science backgrounds will find some of the educational technology journals are ideal research outlets to describe their newly designed cool tool, simulation, online resource, or similar, even though they are not committed to the field of educational technology or have any previous interests in it. 

4.      Greed Factor: Some researchers and scholars will attempt to publish in SSCI journals primarily with the goal of a pay-off such as a bonus check at the end of the year or a salary increase. In places like Korea, I heard that faculty can received a bonus of $4,000 or $5,000 or more for each SSCI publication. I had four such SSCI publications one year and received no such bonus. Hey man, what gives?
5.      Values Messed Up: People covet the journal publication process and celebrate it, rather than the research that led to it or the actual results or the ways in which such research is actually used.
6.      Easy Journal Syndrome: People seek out the easiest SSCI journals to publish in. Several people in Taiwan told me to notice that there is a educational technology journal from Turkey that is no longer SSCI or acceptable in the "I" lists maintained in Taiwan (I think they meant the Turkish Online Journal of Educational Technology (TOJET), not the Turkish Journal of Online Distance Education (TOJDE)). Apparently, people caught wind of how a particular journal had accepted more articles than some of the other SSCI journals in the field of educational technology and it was removed from the list. Before its removal, many people from Taiwan had targeted it. 

7.      Distinguished Title Goals: Some people attempt to publish as many articles in SSCI journals as they can in hopes of more pay, better titles, internal promotion, a different job, higher status, respect, etc., rather than genuinely attempting to make a contribution to a field or push it ahead. In effect, many people wind up scamming the system for personal goals.

8.      Limited Journal Selection: Many up-and-coming journals are not on the SSCI list. To make matters worse, it is increasingly difficult for new journals to get listed when everyone is concentrating on a select few journals. I mention this as a problem since many high quality journals are not found in SSCI lists.

9.      Traditions Lead to More Traditions: As related to the previous point, the older and traditional journals in the field tend to dominate the submission process and ultimately the rankings. Yet, the narrow or established publication topics accepted by traditional journals may stagnate the field and limit creativity.

10.  Narrow Focus: If most researchers focus on publishing in a few highly select journals or dissemination outlets, the entire field may become narrowly focused on what is acceptable in those select journals. Research on the edges or periphery of a field may get shortchanged or not noticed at all.

11.  Editorial Board Dominance: As a result of such SSCI journal targeting, certain journals end up with editorial boards with heavy representation from East Asia, and, in particular, Taiwan. One of the people I interviewed specifically mentioned the British Journal of Educational Technology (BJET) as a case in point. (Sidenote: I reviewed the editor and reviewer list for BJET and saw some representation from Taiwan but not dominance. Nevertheless, I think the person who mentioned this issue has a point worth mentioning here.) 

12.  English Dominance: SSCI journals tend to be published in English. Some people whom I interviewed in Taiwan told me that they felt that Chinese people (and others who do not speak English) were being slighted by such practices. 

13.  Narrow-minded Recruitment Practices: Some people noted that there are limited job opportunities for those who do not play the SSCI game as well as for those who do and are not successful at it.
14.  SSCI is Corporate: A couple of people pointed out that SSCI is created by an institute made up of library science people. It is now a corporation. It is made available from Thompson Reuters through a subscription service from the Web of Science (see also this video on Intellectual Property  and Science at Thompson Reuters). Why are people in academia bowing to statistics created by a corporate entity which makes money from such homage?

15.  Impact Factor Ranking Manipulations: I am on the board of a couple of journals which are currently on the approved SSCI list. I have heard through the grapevine that SSCI rankings can be manipulated by the publisher. They can use marketing tactics to bring attention (eyeballs) to their journals, and, hence, increase their deemed value. I am not sure if this is true, but I would not doubt it either.
16.  Creativity and Spontaneity Limited: Innovation and insight often occur at the far edges of a field or at the intersections of two or more fields or topics. When researchers become enamored with publications in particular journals that have a long-standing reputation in the field, creative bursts of insight are less likely to occur. Less zeal. And, as noted below, there tends to be far less passion and true volition than if there weren’t such targets.

17.  Lack of Passion and Interest: As noted in the point above, with the emphasis on SSCI or other similar indexes of achievement, there is less sense of true passion for the field or topic. One may really lack true interest in or concern for the topic being researched. When that happens, what is one living or working for? What is their true aim in life? Just who are they benefitting?

18.  Elitism Reigns: Not on the list? Well, now, that makes you unimportant and inferior. You do not deserve a second look. We will not discuss you, approach you, review for you, celebrate you, or recommend you. We will also not embrace or hug you when you publish a slew of articles in non-SSCI journals. No one will care whether you live or die. Go away for all we care. Yes, we’d be better off if you simply died a quick death. Nothing slow, mind you. Be gone!

19.  Rats in a Cage: We are just rats in a cage seeking the next pellet. You must do this. And then you should do this. And this and this and this! And then you have to do “that” while you’re at it. We will give you the target or targets. Do not fret about them; they are out of your control anyway. We will decide if you made it to the Promised Land or not. Oh my…all this sounds like the TV show “The Outer Limits") controlling the horizontal and vertical on your TV set in the 1960s (more specifically from September 16, 1963 to January 16, 1965).

There is nothing wrong with your television set. Do not attempt to adjust the picture. We are controlling transmission. If we wish to make it louder, we will bring up the volume. If we wish to make it softer, we will tune it to a whisper. We will control the horizontal. We will control the vertical. We can roll the image, make it flutter. We can change the focus to a soft blur or sharpen it to crystal clarity. For the next hour, sit quietly and we will control all that you see and hear. We repeat: there is nothing wrong with your television set. You are about to participate in a great adventure. You are about to experience the awe and mystery which reaches from the inner mind to – The Outer Limits.
We will throw all of you rats in the same cage and see which one of you spins the fastest or can coerce enough reviewers to accept your articles. Those that do, will win. Plain and simple.

As I told people at NTU, it is highly unfortunate that after spending decades in primary, secondary, and post-secondary education, that many scholars remain treated as rats in a cage. People are controlling us. They would control all that we do if we let. Perhaps we have truly hit “the Outer Limits” of what we should expect scholars and researchers to do. Perhaps it is time to rebel against those who impose these (“silly”?) SSCI systems upon us. Do not allow others to control your horizontal or vertical image. Please do not sit quietly and let others control what you see and hear and do. 

20.  Industrial or Factory Model: The emphasis on SSCI as the benchmark for decision making about one’s productivity or overall worth is reminiscent of a factory model of education. Someone outside the discipline decides on the end state (i.e., publications in SSCI journals). The government and administrators are favoring one form of scholarship over others. And, as a result, people continue to work for an external or extrinsic goal instead of something that meets their true inner passions or volitions. When will there be freedom to learn, as Carl Rogers once implored? Freedom to explore new areas of interest. Freedom to venture into the unknown. Freedom to choose what to research and where to publish our findings. Freedom to free from the constraints placed on us from those in positions above. Freedom to be human.

21.  I feel strange”: During my first few days in Taiwan, I asked a former Indiana University student who recently received a researcher position in Taiwan what he thought about the emphasis on SSCI and the overall merit system in place in Taiwan. His response was the following, “I feel strange.” Why does he feel strange? Well, I guess he just finished years working on his Ph.D. in pure mathematics. There were many hoops and hurdles to climb or jump through. There indeed was much celebration and fanfare in the end. There was so much to be proud of. But now there are many more hoops. Vastly more hurdles than he ever dreamed of. It is another game that has been established. His identity will come from publications in a few select journals and perhaps his grant writing, but not much more. Undoubtedly, such a situation would feel strange to me too.
22.  Journal Editors Feel Strange: Of course, researchers and scholars are not the only ones feeling this sense of strangeness. According to a couple people who I talked to, there are others besides the professors and researchers attempting to publish in SSCI journals who feel strange too. The people that I talked to thought that journal editors who are being sent a never-ending supply of manuscripts from researchers in Taiwan, Korea, and China must feel that it is at least a tad odd or weird when they scan their manuscript in-box. Do they attempt to balance publications in their journal by country or region of the world in which the authors are from? Or do they simply select the highest ranked papers for the next issue? Might they try to use some combination of both? Or do they have a different approach?
23.  Productivity Slaves: Some researchers and scholars find ways to take advantage of having graduate students, post-doctoral researchers, and others around them or in their research teams. These knowledge workers might play a significant role in collecting research data as well as writing up or editing papers for SSCI journals. In effect, some scholars have extra money from grants that others do not have access to and can take advantage of it for a never-ending cycle of SSCI publications and rewards.

(By the way, according to one of my sources, “The NSC announced last year that they would not use “I” as the main indicator for reviewing research proposals. They are working on a more balanced review process, not solely relying on RPI (Research Performance Index), also based on “I” points. Even so, this is something that Taiwan government always does – “give you a pain killer when you have a pain.” They always prescribe medicine without looking into the root of the pain. Even worse, their prescriptions often aggregate the pain without curing the root cause of it…As a result, the government has lost its credibility. This is partially due to the fact that the raging “I” monsters have spread on this small “I”sland wildly. I really doubt what they can do to rectify the “I” system so deeply rooted in academia.”
Well said, my friend. During the next few years, we will see if this monster is truly going away or not. It may take time. Much time!
24.  Student Issues: Given the massive attention paid to SSCI journal publications, to what degree does this focus shortchange students? Are learner needs being met? Does research take more precedence over teaching high quality courses or internal and external service? Just what is ignored or attended to less frequently with the massive infatuation with SSCI?
25.  Limited Teaching Exposure and Experience: Some people noted that due to the enamoration with on SSCI journal publications, graduate students are often conducting and writing up research. There are less and less graduate students who are obtaining teaching experience prior to completing their doctorates.

26.  SSCI Preparedness Training Programs: According to some of my sources, there are summer workshops on how to succeed in publishing in SSCI journals. Question abound. Who are these people providing such workshops? If one can get training for such publications, why don’t universities provide such workshops for all of their faculty members and researchers? Someone I talked to asked whether there was a money back guarantee if one does not succeed. Good question. I will add the following to her question: If one can be trained in a few days to publish in such journals, should we continue to hold such journals in high esteem? I think not.
27.  Personal Growth and Development: When external targets are created, one’s sense of self is inherently devalued. There is less focus on personal growth and self-development. But what is more important: personal growth and self-actualization or meeting some externally contrived goal or outcome? I would hope it is the former. No one is going to write on one’s gravestone that this person got so many SSCI publications or grants during his or her lifetime. However, they may record the original or unique pieces of work actually produced by that person.
Ok, that concludes my 12 pros and 27 cons of the special weight placed on SSCI in East Asia; especially in Taiwan. See what you think and remember that I am not an SSCI expert. There are likely thousands of other people around the planet (especially in East Asia) who are much more prepared to discuss this topic than me. And also remember that I have had many SSCI publications in the past as a result of people I am working targeting such journals.
I personally do not care if my articles find their way in SSCI journals. I get no bonuses or rewards for such. Though I would not turn down a bonus check or two if one were to come my way. Let’s see, 4 SSCI publications in 2009 worth $5,000 each in Korea. That would be…hum…$20,000 for spending money during Christmas holidays. I’ll take it! Na, I will let someone from Taiwan have a crack at it instead.
Are you going to bed now? I am. If you are, remember to check for those "I" monsters hiding under your bed or in your closet. Also remember to list those SSCI, A&HCI, and SCI journal publications in your Christmas wish list. Will they be better than visions of sugar-plums dancing in your heads? I think not. Now, dash away! Dash away! Dash away all you who create these fictional goals for us!

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  posted by Curt Bonk @ 11:19 PM  
  • At 5:35 AM, Blogger Unknown said…

    Turkey is the same.

    On a side note; Under "6. Easy Journal Syndrome", The aforementioned publication is TOJET (Turkish Online Journal of Educational Technology) and not TOJDE (Turkish Jouurnal of Diatance Education). Further, to my knowledge, TOJDE has not been in SSCI.

  • At 11:12 AM, Blogger Curt Bonk said…

    Yep, I changed the post. Recheck point #6 about Turkey. (China and Korea are also similar, as I mentioned.)

  • At 1:41 AM, Blogger LWChen said…

    Here's an interesting article from Dr. Randy Schekman - How journals like Nature, Cell and Science are damaging science.

  • At 5:42 PM, Blogger Weight Guru said…

    Interesting article, and one that has become relevant to me recently. In Korea, it's virtually impossible to get a tenure-track position without at least one SSCI publication to your name. It is either a very arbitrary way of setting standards, or a smart way to ensure that faculty publish thereby raising the profile of the university. As for the bonuses, you are correct; most schools will pay for all research, whether it be SSCI, Scopus or KCI (Korean Citation Index). Of course, the big bucks are reserved for SSCI - I've heard some unis offer $10,000~$15,000 for an SSCI publication, though it is on a sliding scale, so in your case, where you had 4 in one year, you might ave received 10k for the first, 7K for the second, 5K for the third and so on. Still not bad, eh? That system encourages researchers to "hold back" research until a new fiscal year though, which is another 'con' to add to your list.

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Name: Curt Bonk
Home: Bloomington, Indiana, United States
About Me: I am a former accountant and CPA and a former educational psychologist. I am now Professor of IST at Indiana University and also adjunct in the School of Informatics. I founded and later sold SurveyShare. As president of CourseShare, LLC, I run around the world training instructors to teach online and give motivational talks about emerging learning technologies. I also write and edit books related to e-learning and blended learning. See bio and vita.

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