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Can University Faculty Hold Platforms To Account?

Heidi Tworek has a good piece with the Centre for International Governance Innovation, where she questions whether there will be a sufficient number of faculty in Canada (and elsewhere) to make use of information that digital-first companies might be compelled to make available to researchers. The general argument goes that if companies must make information available to academics then these academics can study the information and, subsequently, hold companies to account and guide evidence-based policymaking.

Tworek’s argument focuses on two key things.

  1. First, there has been a decline in the tenured professoriate in Canada, with the effect that the adjunct faculty who are ‘filling in’ are busy teaching and really don’t have a chance to lead research.
  2. While a vanishingly small number of PhD holders obtain a tenure track role, a reasonable number may be going into the very digital-first companies that researchers needs data from to hold them accountable.

On this latter point, she writes:

If the companies have far more researchers than universities have, transparency regulations may not do as much to address the imbalance of knowledge as many expect.

I don’t think that hiring people with PhDs necessarily means that companies are addressing knowledge imbalances. Whatever is learned by these researchers tends to be sheltered within corporate walls and protected by NDAs. So those researchers going into companies may learn what’s going on but be unable (or unmotivated) to leverage what they know in order to inform policy discussions meant to hold companies to account.

To be clear, I really do agree with a lot in this article. However, I think it does have a few areas for further consideration.

First, more needs to be said about what, specifically, ’transparency’ encompasses and its relationships with data type, availability, etc. Transparency is a deeply contested concept and there are a lot of ways that the revelation of data basically creates a funhouse of mirrors effect, insofar as what researchers ‘see’ can be very distorted from the reality of what truly is.

Second, making data available isn’t just about whether universities have the professors to do the work but, really, whether the government and its regulators have the staff time as well. Professors are doing a lot of things whereas regulators can assign staff to just work the data, day in and day out. Focus matters.

Third, and related, I have to admit that I have pretty severe doubts about the ability of professors to seriously take up and make use of information from platforms, at scale and with policy impact, because it’s never going to be their full time jobs to do so. Professors are also going to be required to publish in books or journals, which means their outputs will be delayed and inaccessible to companies, government bureaucrats and regulators, and NGO staff. I’m sure academics will have lovely and insightful discussions…but they won’t happen fast enough, or in accessible places or in plain language, to generally affect policy debates.

So, what might need to be added to start fleshing out how universities are organised to make use of data released by companies and have policy impacts in research outputs?

First, universities in Canada would need to get truly serious about creating a ’researcher class’ to analyse corporate reporting. This would involve prioritising the hiring of research associates and senior research associates who have few or no teaching responsibilities.1

Second, universities would need to work to create centres such as the Citizen Lab, or related groups.2 These don’t need to be organisations which try and cover the waterfront of all digital issues. They could, instead, be more focused to reduce the number of staff or fellows that are needed to fulfil the organisation’s mandate. Any and all centres of this type would see a small handful of people with PhDs (who largely lack teaching responsibilities) guide multidisciplinary teams of staff. Those same staff members would not typically need a a PhD. They would need to be nimble enough to move quickly while using a peer-review lite process to validate findings, but not see journal or book outputs as their primacy currency for promotion or hiring.

Third, the centres would need a core group of long-term staffers. This core body of long-term researchers is needed to develop policy expertise that graduate students just don’t possess or develop in their short tenure in the university. Moreover, these same long-term researchers can then train graduate student fellows of the centres in question, with the effect of slowly building a cadre of researchers who are equipped to critically assess digital-first companies.

Fourth, the staff at research centres needs to be paid well and properly. They cannot be regarded as ‘graduate student plus’ employees but as specialists who will be of interest to government and corporations. This means that the university will need to pay competitive wages in order to secure the staff needed to fulfil centre mandates.

Basically if universities are to be successful in holding big data companies to account they’ll need to incubate quasi-NGOs and let them loose under the university’s auspice. It is, however, worth asking whether this should be the goal of the university in the first place: should society be outsourcing a large amount of the ‘transparency research’ that is designed to have policy impact or guide evidence-based policy making to academics, or should we instead bolster the capacities of government departments and regulatory agencies to undertake these activities

Put differently, and in context with Tworek’s argument: I think that assuming that PhDs holders working as faculty in universities are the solution to analysing data released by corporations can only hold if you happen to (a) hold or aspire to hold a PhD; (b) possesses or aspire to possess a research-focused tenure track job.

I don’t think that either (a) or (b) should guide the majority of the way forward in developing policy proposals as they pertain to holding corporations to account.

Do faculty have a role in holding companies such as Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple, or Netflix to account? You bet. But if the university, and university researchers, are going to seriously get involved in using data released by companies to hold them to account and have policy impact, then I think we need dedicated and focused researchers. Faculty who are torn between teaching, writing and publishing in inaccessible locations using baroque theoretical lenses, pursuing funding opportunities and undertaking large amounts of department service and performing graduate student supervision are just not going to be sufficient to address the task at hand.


  1. In the interests of disclosure, I currently hold one of these roles. ↩︎
  2. Again in the interests of disclosure, this is the kind of place I currently work at. ↩︎