Metrics and Socialization of Early-stage Researchers

Issue 41: Metrics Wed 18 Apr 2018 0

Kateřina Cidlinská, PhD student, Czech Republic

I am writing this as a contribution to the discussion about metrics, not only as PhD candidate but rather mainly as a researcher who focuses on drop outs from the academic path at the doctoral and postdoctoral stage and who poses questions such as: what kind of people with what kind of approach to academic work leave academia? What does it mean for the future development of research if such people disappear?

The Czech Methodology of research assessment based on metrics was instituted in 2004. In 2009 it became the basis for the distribution of institutional funding for research and development in universities (Linková 2014). This is the beginning of a phenomenon similar to that described in The Leiden Manifesto (Hicks and Wouters et al. 2014). In the case of Australia in the 1990s university research was funded using a formula based mostly on the number of articles an academic produced in a given period. This practice lead to a significant increase in the number of published articles due to strategic, sometimes even predatory, publishing [1].

Current students are fully socialised into an environment that is significantly influenced by this assessment system. You can easily meet, for example, a natural science researcher who boasts that she produced a paper from her bachelor’s thesis. This gives me the shivers. What does such an article look like? Will reading it be useful to anyone? Is it really good to encourage bachelors’ students to publish articles? In the case of the social sciences and humanities, we see such early publications less often. Nevertheless even in these fields students hear that someone is cool because (s) he has a lot of articles or they are pushed to spew out papers. As one of my research informants said:

It was only bossing around: Write papers, write papers, but for someone to help, to give advice, this did not work at all.” (Man, sociology, exited academic career after getting his PhD)

As can be seen from the quotation, the emphasis was on the number of articles without any discussion of their content. This was one of the main reasons why he left academia – and he was not the only one. A demographer, who left the position of a research assistant, stated:

Once a year, the research team assessment was conducted […] and everyone reported how many articles they had. At first it was always stressed: 'This one is good, it has three impacts, but this one has none'. The expert discussion was secondary.

Here the emphasis is also on the level of the journal, not just the quantity of articles, but again at the expense of discussion about the content. The feeling of doing things for the sake of it related to the stress on publication output has been present in my research interviews across all disciplines.  

My supervisor, forces me to write up papers even when I did not agree because I did not stand by the results. I knew that it’s patched up so to get an output, an empty tangle of some information published under my name.” (Man, biochemistry, exited academic career after completing his PhD)

Based on the testimony of my informants', it can be deduced that the current assessment system is pushing early-stage researchers out of science who feel disappointed that rather than pushing back the horizons of science they are simply required to publish. Is this not a warning? Of course, I am not saying that anyone who wants to publish in IF journals is bad. I do not deny that there are people who are very productive publishers and strive to do good science. I just want to point out the discursive framework in which current students are ‘brought up’ and to draw attention to the dangers that this situation entails.

 A short time ago, at one Czech university there was a case where a dean was accused of intentional publishing in predatory journals. This case passed without gaining any attention from PhD candidates. Do they not care? Or do the publications in predatory journals not seem to be such a big deal to them? Or do some of them not understand the issues because they are not sure what a predatory journal is? I am afraid that this is possible, especially for the younger ones. And honestly, I do not perceive it primarily as their fault in a situation when more experienced academics do not talk with them about publishing ethics. There has been a lot of discussion over the past decade, but mostly at conferences rather than during the usual seminars and talks in the corridors. It is important to make it easier for students to familiarize with such matters and to encourage them to enter the discussion. Through this article I would like to appeal to teachers, supervisors and team leaders to discuss the subject with their students and junior researchers to prevent the increase in feelings of demotivation, which arise as a result of these pressures among those who are currently still excited about doing research.

[1] In academic publishing, predatory open-access publishing is an exploitative open-access publishing business model that involves charging publication fees to authors without providing the editorial and publishing services associated with legitimate journals (open access or not).

Linková, M. 2014. “Unable to resist: Researchers’ responses to research assessment in the Czech Republic.” Human Affairs: Postdisciplinary Humanities & Social Sciences Quarterly 24 (1): 78-88.
Hicks, D., Wouters, P., Waltman, L., de Rijcke, S., Rafols, I. 2014. “Bibliometrics: The Leiden Manifesto for research metrics.” Nature, April 22, 2015.