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Opinion: The False promise of meritocracy: "We hire the smartest and most talented"

Merit-based reward has long been celebrated within academia. But the belief that we have a true meritocracy may perpetuate inequalities, argue the five columnists from Linje X.

"The very assumption of a meritocracy may make individuals believe that they are fair and objective, thereby creating blindness to discrimination. Perhaps a first step on the path to diversity is to acknowledge that we are long way from a true meritocracy," write the five columnists called Linje X.
The views expressed in this content are the authors’ own. Photo: Colourbox
Linje X: Signe Vogel (PhD Student and antropologist), Kamille Smidt Rasmussen (Associate Professor, Head of Graduate Programme), Ida Vogel (DrMSc, Clinical Professor), Christine Parsons (Associate Professor) og Anne-Mette Hvas (Professor, Deputy head of department for Research and Talent) – all from Department of Clinical Medicine. Graphics: Astrid Reitzel

Academia may have the outward appearance of a meritocracy, a system in which the best and brightest minds advance purely on the basis of qualifications and achievements. In academia, researchers are frequently evaluated – formally or informally – on their publication record and the size of the grants they receive. The very top performers go on to achieve permanent positions (often as an associate professor) or may even be promoted to the highest ranks of academia, the hallowed Full Professor status.  

"I got here through hard work and perseverance!"

Picture the scenario: a researcher works diligently on their idea often for many years and is rewarded - if the work is of sufficient quality - with a publication in a top journal. For scientists, that top journal might be Nature or Science. For a PhD student, hitting a home-run with a Nature paper almost guarantees postdoctoral funding, national recognition, and possibly even a talent prize from a professional or national agency. More funding and recognition follows the initial success, referred to as the "Matthew effect". An initial win can set in motion a string of further successes, in receiving more funding, in being recruited to a prestigious lab, or being invited to give talks at conferences.

Luck plays a role

Luck plays a role in success in academia publishing, especially when it comes to the highest echelons. Certain topics are 'hot' at certain times and are more likely to be accepted for publication in high-impact journals than others. Ground-breaking work is often published in lower-prestige outlets  and many major scientific discoveries are initially rejected.

Take Rosalyn S. Yalow, winner of a Nobel in 1977, as an example. She had a landmark article on insulin-binding antibodies first rejected by Science, then met an editor at The Journal of Clinical Investigation who critiqued her “dogmatic conclusions which are not warranted by the data”.  

The problem with journal prestige in academia is that there is a long tradition of its use as a short-cut for evaluating researchers. Grant and hiring committees use journal metrics in their decision-making, as if metrics reflect success alone, and not a combination of success and luck. 

Funding is crucial for advancement

Getting money to do research is crucial for advancement in many academic fields. Like journal publications, worthy applications often do not get funded, even though differences in the quality of funded and unfunded applications can be minimal. Grant agencies typically use peer-reviewers to assess applications, but agreement between reviewers tends to be poor, and reviewers prone to numerous well-described biases (e.g., cronyism, preference for research areas, institutions, individual scientists, gender and racial biases). For example, women are less successful in grant applications where reviewers are asked to assess the researcher, rather than the research. Current funding schemes are considered so problematic that many have called for a total overhaul, and the implementation of fairer strategies such as lottery-based schemes.

Academics 'game' measures 

It is hard to assess excellence in research objectively. For each new metric that has emerged, academics have found clever ways to 'game' the measure. Counting the number of times a researcher's article has been cited (e.g., the h-index), once praised as a way to track the impact of an article on a field, can be manipulated through self-citations and lengthy reference lists. As the old adage of Goodhart's law states, "when a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.”

We are a long way from a true meritocracy

If we are to create a more diverse university staff, we need to acknowledge that academia is not a pure meritocracy. Journal metrics and grant funding are lotteries, where hard-work and talent can increase the odds of success, but do not guarantee it. Hiring committees often look for the 'fit' of the candidate with the departmental strategy or vision, a criteria that is necessarily subjective. Coupled with a tendency to prefer those with similar work and educational experiences and hobbies, the best “fitting” candidate for many departments may be white, with the name ‘Lars’ or ‘Jens’.  

Ironically, when an organisation is presented as a meritocracy, there is evidence that managers favour male employees over equally-qualified female employees. The very assumption of a meritocracy may make individuals believe that they are fair and objective, thereby creating blindness to discrimination. Perhaps a first step on the path to diversity is to acknowledge that we are long way from a true meritocracy.

LISTEN: Signe Vogel and Kamille Smidt Ramussen from Linje X have produced a podcast series called 'Operation Kvindekamp' about gender equality in academia. You can find all five episodes via Apple Podcasts or Soundcloud. The podcast is in Danish.