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Academics Not Productive Enough? Sack 'em 356

Posted by timothy
from the wish-I-could-sack-'em-for-being-poor-teachers dept.
ananyo writes "One hundred academics at the University of Sydney, Australia, have this week been told they will lose their jobs for not publishing frequently enough. The move is part of a wider cost-cutting plans designed to pay for new buildings and refurbishment to the university. Letters were posted to researchers on Monday 20 February, informing them their positions were being terminated because they hadn't published at least four 'research outputs' over the past three years. It is unclear which research fields the academics work in. Another 64 academics were told they had a choice between leaving and moving to a teaching-only position, he said."
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Academics Not Productive Enough? Sack 'em

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  • That'll work well. (Score:5, Insightful)

    by sethstorm (512897) on Thursday February 23, 2012 @09:52AM (#39135765) Homepage

    So if they were to publish more to make up for a quota, wouldn't that'd lower the quality a bit?

  • Tenure (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Relayman (1068986) on Thursday February 23, 2012 @09:57AM (#39135805)
    That's why we have tenure in the United States. "Publish or perish" exists until the professor gets tenure and then it's not as much as an issue any more.
  • by fuzzyfuzzyfungus (1223518) on Thursday February 23, 2012 @09:59AM (#39135817) Journal
    Of course not. How could quality be going down if the metric we are using because it is easy and convenient is going up? That would be difficult to model and therefore unthinkable. Why, it might even require me to have some subject-matter knowledge in the areas that my human resources do! I am way too focused on lining my bookshelf with copies of books about management fads for shit like that.
  • by TheRaven64 (641858) on Thursday February 23, 2012 @10:09AM (#39135899) Journal
    In general, I'd agree, but publishing just over one paper per year shouldn't be hard for any moderately competent researcher. At the very least, they can publish something saying 'we tried this approach, and now we can show why it's a bad idea'.
  • Re:Tenure (Score:4, Insightful)

    by sohmc (595388) on Thursday February 23, 2012 @10:12AM (#39135929) Journal

    I'm not an academic but my understanding of tenure is to allow the professor to publish topics that may be controversial. That way, the school can't dump the professor for publishing something that goes against the grain.

    Of course, professors are still human and many of them abuse tenure but I'm sure there are professors that actually use the protection that tenure provides them to do extraordinary work that otherwise might have gotten them fired for not toeing the university line. (The easiest examples that comes to mind is global warming, creationism, etc.)

  • by langelgjm (860756) on Thursday February 23, 2012 @10:14AM (#39135953) Journal
    So, how exactly will firing professors for not publishing "enough" encourage professors to care more about students and teaching, and less about publishing?
  • by pavon (30274) on Thursday February 23, 2012 @10:15AM (#39135957)

    The professors who follow your advice and focus on teaching rather than publishing make up the bulk of the people being fired here (plus a few slackers who neither teach well nor publish). The ones being kept are the ones who can get grants and crank out papers like printing press, and most likely treat students as a low priority.

  • by Coryoth (254751) on Thursday February 23, 2012 @10:21AM (#39136009) Homepage Journal

    It's my opinion that if you work in academia and don't publish at least one paper a year you should probably be doing something else(either to another field which leads to results, not just food for thought or to another job).

    Yeah, I hear that guy Andrew Wiles [wikipedia.org] spent 7 years not publishing any papers. Oxford stupidly put up with that instead of canning has ass at year 2, and they've gotten nothing but disrepute ever since. I mean has anyone ever heard of Wiles? Has he published anything of note at all? Oxford definitely would have been better off without him.

  • by MikeRT (947531) on Thursday February 23, 2012 @10:21AM (#39136011) Homepage

    Another 64 academics were told they had a choice between leaving and moving to a teaching-only position, he said

    If the teaching-only position is an option for most of them, then that seems to be a reasonable compromise. The West simply doesn't have the money anymore to throw at professors who are neither prolific researchers nor teachers. There are plenty of students who work very hard for the university who could benefit from having their stipends increased by cannibalizing the salaries of "researchers" who don't really publish much of anything.

    I think this quote might hint at who is really being targeted:

    “The mood is bloody,” agreed Jake Lynch, Director of the university’s Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies. “The union accurately reflects the frustration of many researchers.”

    There are a lot of humanities, liberal arts and social sciences professors who claim to be "researchers" but aren't productive in any sense that the sciences or engineering disciplines would recognize. Based on the friends I had in the sciences and engineering, I can't believe that most of the professors overseeing the researcher graduate students aren't regarded as highly productive by their universities because they put in solid time and effort every year at the very least guiding the researchers doing the grunt work. Admittedly, that's an American experience, but I have a feeling that their College of Arts and Letters, not Science and Engineering, is what is starting to feel the bean counters' medusa-like gaze...

  • by bigsexyjoe (581721) on Thursday February 23, 2012 @10:23AM (#39136031)

    The professors' union has a good point. Enrollment is increasing and management miscalculated the student fees they would need to take in. So now the professors have to:
    a) publish more
    b) teach more
    leaving little time for:
    c) publish papers that are risky and innovative (the kind that actually move human knowledge forward)

    You have wonder how we can encourage the best and the brightest to be academics. We work them to death making them earn a degree, we work them to death making them actually get hired, then they have to still build their reputation. And know they are saying that they'll get fired for not publishing more when they are already teaching more.

  • Re:Dare I say... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by betterunixthanunix (980855) on Thursday February 23, 2012 @10:23AM (#39136033)
    Except that the demand for publishing lots of papers results in:
    1. Researchers chasing low-hanging fruit and ignoring hard problems.
    2. Researchers taking one good result and publishing lots of tiny variations on that result, essentially publishing the same paper over and over again.
    3. Lack of cooperation and secrecy among researchers

    Research is not about the quantity of results that are published, it is about the quality and importance of those results.

  • Screw that. (Score:4, Insightful)

    by GauteL (29207) on Thursday February 23, 2012 @10:24AM (#39136049)

    It is my experience that many academics these days are pushed into "pork" activities, that is industry oriented work that brings in money for the university, but has little or no academic value.

    In the UK it is particularly common that research fellows are hired for specific pork-based projects on short-term contracts, and also has to cover teaching due to a shortage or unwillingness of staff on higher pay-grades. Actual research you're meant to do on your spare time.

    Well screw that. These days an academic career gives you less pay, longer work hours and less job security than an industry job. You're much more likely to get a permanent job in industry. In academia you have to go through 4-5 short term contracts before you're likely to get a permanent job.

    I wouldn't be surprised if a lot of the sacked academics has been pressurised into pork work for years and then get let go when the bacon runs out, because they've been too deep in pig fat to publish.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday February 23, 2012 @10:25AM (#39136073)

    What about:

    First year: "We have built up this experiment, and we are now collecting data."
    Second year: "We are still in the process of collecting data; up to now we haven't seen anything interesting."
    Third year: "We are still in the process of collecting data; up to now we haven't seen anything interesting."

    No journal would publish any of that.

    However, the following would make the headlines if the researcher hadn't been fired due to three years without publication:
    Fourth year: "We have proof for superluminal supersymmetric magnetic monopoles!"

    Yes, I'm exaggerating. But the point is, some things just need time.

    The right thing to do if someone has few publications is not saying "sorry, you've got too few publications, you're fired" but to ask "you've got very few publications, what are you doing?" And only if he can't give a good answer to that, firing him is justified.

  • by geogob (569250) on Thursday February 23, 2012 @10:28AM (#39136091)

    Although I agree that some people deserve the boot, such a policy - like most academic policies nowadays - only encourage production of large quantities of low-quality material. (That just a polite way of saying "huge piles of shit").

    Going through published material is really depressing. Most of it is either republished stuff (à la "the same article few months ago : now with a new figure") or stuff that wouldn't even find its way into a textbooks due to lack of interest.

    The groups I've been working with are on the top of our field. These groups published very little (maybe a paper or two per year, for the whole group), but always groundbreaking content or content of high interest for the community - and thus hold very high reputation in the community. I like it that way. Rather than wasting my time writing worthless papers (because writing a good paper takes time if you are not writing it with 3 keyboard keys - ctrl, c and v), I rather do actual work and publish it when it's mature enough.

    Sadly, this view is not very common and I believe we get through with our way only because we are closer to engineering than to what people refer to as scientific research.

  • by crmarvin42 (652893) on Thursday February 23, 2012 @10:29AM (#39136111)
    This isn't necessarily an "either/or" senario. Writting up negative results is just as important as writing up positive ones. That way other researchers in the field know what not to try. My bias comes from the life sciences, where a lack of expected response to a product is just as important as its presence. You may not want to go out and write up a full journal article, and instead go the route of presenting an abstract at a relevent conference, but that still counts as a 'research output' most places, even if it is of lesser impact than a journal article.

    We academics are hired to perform a job, and as much of a PITA as publication can be, it is one of the major job requirements. Not doing a part of your job well enough is definitely grounds for termination, assuming the academic didn't have some sort of tenure protections.
  • by Ihmhi (1206036) <i_have_mental_health_issues@yahoo.com> on Thursday February 23, 2012 @10:31AM (#39136137)

    But which is more productive - writing up "this failed"

    Writing up "this failed" is absolutely just as (if not more) productive. Too many published papers are "this works" and not "this didn't work". A huge part of science, mathematics, etc. is failing and then explaining how and why you failed.

    What's the worst that can happen? "Oh noes, Professor Straya tried a completely logical methodology but it didn't work out?" The only fear is to be exposed as incompetent (contaminated experiment, bad methodology, etc.) and that's a good thing as well.

  • by crmarvin42 (652893) on Thursday February 23, 2012 @10:33AM (#39136157)

    ...insisting on putting their names as co-authors on all their grad students' papers (even if they didn't write a word)

    Not sure what the problem is here. Maybe it's because of the field you are in, but in my field (animal science) it is expected that your major advisor be on every manuscript. Usually becasue they played a major role in designing the experiment, procuring the funding, and paying the students stipend. My advisor's primariy contribution to the writing process of my manuscripts was as an editor, but he definitely made "meaningful intellectual contributions" to the research projects described, which has always been the bar for co-authorship in my opinion.

  • Re:Tenure (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Samantha Wright (1324923) on Thursday February 23, 2012 @10:41AM (#39136237) Homepage Journal

    The simple answer is that academia is powered by a completely different mindset, one where—at least officially and romantically—the importance of ideas exceeds the importance of an individual or organization. As sohmc said [slashdot.org], the point is to protect intellectuals from being fired because their ideas are radical or unfashionable. Tenure gives professors a chance to go off the beaten path without fear of reprisal, and it's delayed to make sure that they're worth their salt and can contribute in a socially accepted way as well.

    If you want to get right down to it, the "right to work" model you outlined simply does not scale to universities, because their core business is obtaining the truth, and that really is a matter of resolving many conflicting and shady theories until they are all completely disentangled and the right answer is found. Teaching is ancillary, a service offered to the general public through which society is benefited by their work. Publishing is only an indirect measure. It's not business or economically sensible (unlike high school teaching); it's a post-scarcity blue-skies fantasy that gained protected status as a result of trial, error, and a lot of rich people very long ago who were convinced that it was a good idea.

    What you expected to find is much closer to private sector R&D, where every paycheque comes from the lifeblood of the company and must hence be carefully weighed against each researcher's profitability. Despite the harsh reality of grant-seeking and paper-publishing, academia at its core is still imagined to be about doing the right thing, and any professor worth his or her education knows this.

  • Re:Dare I say... (Score:4, Insightful)

    by gardyloo (512791) on Thursday February 23, 2012 @10:41AM (#39136239)

    If you're not teaching or publishing, what the hell are you doing?

    Actually doing the research which the publications should be based upon, and which will be taught in 30 years. Editing or writing textbooks. Pulling in grants which will pay for research equipment, laboratory space, materials and expendables, travel, publication costs, and incidentally feed, house, and clothe you, your students, and the higher-ups. Serving on administrative councils which are necessary evils, but massive time-sinks. Writing and running necessary simulations so that future research projects can be green- or red-lighted before these time-sinks are encountered again.

    If you think that time researching in a University is spent either in the classroom, or at one's desk pumping out papers left and right, you're sorely mistaken.

  • by mx+b (2078162) on Thursday February 23, 2012 @10:42AM (#39136251)

    Indeed. I recently interviewed for professor positions. I often seem to get blank/unimpressed expressions when I describe that my interest is teaching, making a good connection with students, and researching teaching methods to make my work more effective and beneficial to students. Personally, I love it. Fun job, and while my students don't believe me, I often learn as much as they do. It's wonderful to view subjects with fresh eyes, vicariously through my students. It also forces me to re-evaluate my own understanding when answering questions. I find it much more satisfying profession that research or industry work.

    The come back to this statement is usually "Well what research did you do for your doctorate, what research are you in now? What papers do you have published? Do you have industry experience?". I usually tell them the relevant info, followed by "...but that's not my primary interest, I enjoy working with students better than working in a lab".

    That never seems to go over well so far, but I feel like I need to stick to my guns on this subject. Universities and colleges should be focused on the students. This doesn't mean you can't do research part of the time, but students are what pay the bills, and ultimately I want enough students to come after me to continue any work I start long after I'm gone. What's the point of all of our hard work in research if we do not have a next generation to pass it to? If the next generation cannot understand it or further the research? In any case, I definitely feel like its harder to get in the door if you aren't obsessively focused on research.

    Quick Anecdote: I remember during graduate school, most of the professors that were "well-known" effectively ignored me and did their best not to give me time and answer questions or help in any manner. They just gave commandments about what to do in lab for them so they could publish more papers and get their name thrown around more; if you're lucky, they might include you as a co-author. My favorite professors, the ones I actually sat and had conversation with and learned what I know now from, were the ones that spent a lot of time on teaching, but in conversation I found out they constantly had to justify their existence to the bean-counters in the administration office; being a teacher or even doing teaching research wasn't enough. They had to come up with all sorts of things -- faculty sponsor of club/organization, etc. -- to prevent themselves from ending up on the chopping block. And now i find myself in the same situation. It's a sad state of affairs, really. Why can't we be allowed to do our job without side project interference?

  • Re:Dare I say... (Score:4, Insightful)

    by betterunixthanunix (980855) on Thursday February 23, 2012 @10:43AM (#39136267)

    Are you arguing for ignoring productivity altogether and basically letting them do whatever they want?

    That is the idea behind tenure: you work hard, publish lots of papers, and so forth to get tenure, and then you are free to work on whatever problems you want. Unfortunately, yes, that means that some professors basically do nothing, but it also allows professors to spend ten years working on a hard problem and not have to worry about being fired for not publishing anything during that period of time. It is also unfortunate in that it basically forces young researchers to chase easy problems before they can really devote much energy to hard problems, and may make young researchers nervous about collaborating or even discussing their work with anyone else (the classic, "Don't tell so-and-so about what we are working on, he is working on something similar and we want to publish first!").

    I agree, we need a better way to evaluate research. We need to weigh things -- weigh the number of papers, the number of citations the papers are getting (one paper that is cited hundreds of times is probably better than a hundred papers that are each cited once), what sort of things a research is currently doing that have not been published (if someone is running a 30 year experiment in biology, that should count, it should not count against them), etc.

  • by PlatyPaul (690601) on Thursday February 23, 2012 @10:48AM (#39136305) Homepage Journal
    Speaking as a computer scientist: negative results in my field are massively discounted, unless you are proving impossibility. Producing a less accurate image feature, or a less effective scheduling algorithm, is not generally considered publish-worthy.
  • Re:Tenure (Score:5, Insightful)

    by crmarvin42 (652893) on Thursday February 23, 2012 @10:52AM (#39136343)
    I don't think it's teaching that requires tenure, but research that encourages its use, and at least 3 reasons stick out in my mind.

    1. Research can be an 80hr a week job, especially for a new professor who is encouraged to forget the definition of the word 'No' for the next 6 to 7 years. Say yes to every research project, every committee, every teaching or presenting opportunity, etc. At the end of the tenure tract many professors can be a little singed around the edges and looking to dial back a little bit. In this case, tenure is supposed to prevent Universities from using up and spitting out researchers once they've passed their peak productive output. It is the academic equivalent to union protections.

    2. As other's have pointed out, there is also the concept of academic freedom to consider. Many times researchers will develop politically unpopular opinions on topics related to their field. Tenure grants them the protection against politically motivated attacks on their job security for presenting their professional opinion. This may not be relevant in all fields, but I've seen some of it in play in mine.

    3. There is a belief that the greatest people to learn from are the pioneers in the field. This ignores the fact that most trained researchers are NOT trained educators, but there is some merit to this idea. Those top researchers probably have insights that students would benefit from being exposed to. In this situation, tenure allows for the researchers to gradually transition from a research focus in their early career, to an education focus in their later careers. In my experience, older tenured professors teach a disproportionate amount of the undergraduate course work. This enables them to dial back the amount of research they do while still contributing greatly to the success of their department. At my current university, our department receives more than 60% of it's total budget from undergraduate tuition. That is despite several nationally recognized and very well funded research labs in our department.
  • by Colonel Korn (1258968) on Thursday February 23, 2012 @11:08AM (#39136473)

    In my field, the papers and article's authors' were the people who actually researched and wrote them. They were not treated as tribute to your academic master. I find the very idea of treating my work as some form of academic kickback repulsive. And I have little respect for anyone who would even THINK of demanding this of one of their students.

    In most sciences the writing of the paper is seen as a chore and the authorship of the paper is based largely on 1) who did the work and 2) who came up with the key ideas. In the vast majority of graduate student work, the advisor played heavily into #2, usually through periodic discussions with the student. Most advisors choose to have their names listed last to place the focus on the student as the first author and the follow custom - the final author usually got the funding or laid the foundation for the project. I see no problem with this in fields where work is highly collaborative.

  • by Attila Dimedici (1036002) on Thursday February 23, 2012 @11:12AM (#39136499)
    Except that Oxford did not "put up with that". Andrew Wiles was only at Oxford from 1988-1990 according to your wikipeia link. He appears from that link to be have been a professor at Princeton for much of the time that he spent working on his proof of Fermat's Last Theorem. It is not clear whether or not he was teaching classes during the time that he was at Princeton.
  • by BeardedChimp (1416531) on Thursday February 23, 2012 @11:28AM (#39136667)
    If you don't publish, what prevents people from investing time in that less effective scheduling algorithm again and again?
  • by luis_a_espinal (1810296) on Thursday February 23, 2012 @11:30AM (#39136681) Homepage

    Speaking as a computer scientist: negative results in my field are massively discounted, unless you are proving impossibility. Producing a less accurate image feature, or a less effective scheduling algorithm, is not generally considered publish-worthy.

    ^^^ This. I'll dare to say that negative results are massively discounted not just in CS, but in other fields as well. It is a lot easier to publish a rosy (and completely irrelevant) scenario than a realistic, but modest negative one. That on itself is what makes academic publishing so hard. It's not the research process that makes it hard/impossible for many academics to publish so frequently, it is the publishing process itself that is anything short of corrupt IMO.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday February 23, 2012 @11:42AM (#39136809)

    You are absolutely right. But nonetheless it is almost impossible to get negative results - even interesting negative results - past the referees. We hocked one paper round a dozen journals trying to get it published.

  • by gnick (1211984) on Thursday February 23, 2012 @11:46AM (#39136851) Homepage

    For example, all sorts of drugs are tested for all sorts of diseases, but generally the results aren't published unless there is some success.

    Unfortunately a lot of failures are published, but sensationalized so that the people doing the research don't appear to have been wasting their time and their sponsors' money. Example:

    Researcher: I have reason to believe that Tylenol causes cancer. If this is true, it could have dramatic effects across the planet and could possibly save millions of lives. I only need $150k to research this and believe that the possibility of saving lives drastically outweighs the cost.

    Sponsor (University or whatever): If we could prove that, our public image would soar once the world learns what we've done for society. Here's a check.

    [Results are inconclusive]

    Embarrassed researcher: After my research, I can not say that Tylenol is safe to take from a cancer standpoint. Many people taking it did indeed develop cancer while on the drug.

    Sponsor: Splendid - Let's publish and tell the world that we've done the study and can not say conclusively that Tylenol doesn't cause cancer.

  • by hairyfeet (841228) <bassbeast1968&gmail,com> on Thursday February 23, 2012 @02:11PM (#39138717) Journal

    Has anyone else noticed that the word "quality" has become almost a dirty word, a word one never utters unless its with nostalgia for when people and companies actually gave a shit? Now some of it you can blame on the government because getting rid of lead solder was just fucking stupid because the amount of waste being made from devices failing earlier is causing more pollution than the lead was, but as we see in TFA even universities are getting into the "We don't give a shit about quality, just crank that shit out" business.

    Personally i think its sad how everything is becoming cheap and plastic and worthless, that's what it really is. Hell you can't even spend more and get quality as all you'll get is the same crap and if the company has a problem with the crap they'll just rig it so it'll last one day past the warranty and fuck you over, HP Nvidia laptop anyone? Maybe its just me but it seemed that people used to take pride in things, take pride in doing a good job, but not anymore. Now its get in, get out, get paid, fuck everything else. Now we are gonna see science and learning become yet more crap factories, just churning out endless piles of stupid useless shit to meet some stupid quota. Damned shame is what it is, just a damned shame.

  • by sg_oneill (159032) on Friday February 24, 2012 @04:25AM (#39144977)

    Books and book chapters will likely contribute to "research output"

    Haha no. University administrators dont care about books or papers or whatever. They care about grants, and you DONT get grants by writing books.

    "Reasearch output" almost certainly means "satisfying a grant board".

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