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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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  • Good riddance (Score:3, Interesting)

    by SirBitBucket (1292924) on Thursday February 23, 2012 @08:56AM (#39135797)
    There are far too many in "accedemia" who just get tenure and do nothing. How about schools focus on TEACHING, specifically undergrads.... Universities these days just worry about publishing and other things that get them grants, but don't care too much about the students, especially the undergrads, which is all the degree most of them are going to get... Put people out in their field and they will learn far more in a week than in a semester of school.
  • Dare I say... (Score:4, Interesting)

    by buddyglass (925859) on Thursday February 23, 2012 @09:05AM (#39135853)
    Good? If you're not teaching full-time then you'd better be publishing. If you're not teaching or publishing, what the hell are you doing? A hard quota on papers-per-time-period seems like a terrible idea, but sacking guys who legitimately aren't producing (or moving them to full-time teaching) seems like a no-brainer. Unless, of course, you have some Nobel laureate on staff and want to keep him around just to beef up your department's "cred".
  • Re:Tenure (Score:5, Interesting)

    by O('_')O_Bush (1162487) on Thursday February 23, 2012 @09:06AM (#39135873)
    Or to prevent mixing whackos with experts breaking ground in radical directions. That is what tenure is supposed to grant, the freedom and protection to go iin new directions or challenge conventional paradigms without fear of being discarded for going against the status quo.

    But just like many well intended benefits of track record and experience (see also social security), it became interpretted by many as the start of a good paying and low effort pension.
  • Re:Tenure (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Samantha Wright (1324923) on Thursday February 23, 2012 @09:09AM (#39135897) Homepage Journal
    Yes; instead it ensures that they learn from apathetic and chronically absent professors. In some Canadian university departments we actually have a system of accountability for lecturers based on students' opinions; in the CS department where I'm doing my undergrad, a Scantron-based survey is incorporated into the decision to give raises. Even tenured bigshots who rake in huge multi-million dollar medical grants are prone. I've seen other departments also send out a round of automated e-mail when considering professors for tenure. The whole system works wonders for preventing the kinds of abuses and irregularities that might occur elsewhere.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday February 23, 2012 @09:13AM (#39135941)

    But which is more productive - writing up "this failed" for publication or getting to work on the next project? I'm a little biased here in that I'm a mathematician, so negative results are generally of the form "I wasn't able to show what I wanted to but still believe the conjecture is true/now believe it to be false.

  • by hvm2hvm (1208954) on Thursday February 23, 2012 @09:24AM (#39136035) Homepage
    In the short run you are better just continuing with the next approach. However if all the people keep publishing said "failures" and constantly look for other researchers' failures then in the long run, everyone does more research because they know what attempts are going to fail beforehand.

    Ideally, researchers would also publish the attempt when they get started on it s.t. there aren't too many people working on the same approach but then you need to factor in the fact that an approach might be to tough for a researcher in which case he should let someone else do it. (Of course, this also assumes that all people are honest and their skills perfectly quantifiable which is obviously wrong)
  • Publish Failures! (Score:3, Interesting)

    by GiantRobotMonster (1159813) on Thursday February 23, 2012 @09:25AM (#39136067)

    We need a lot more people publishing "We tried X to do Y, but it didn't work because of Z."
    They may not be exciting and sexy, but they are good data points to have.

    Are there a whole lot of academics out there who aren't writing anything at all?
    Are they writing absolute crap, that journals are rightly refusing to publish?
    Are they perhaps keeping all of their research secret, so that they can commercialise it themselves and diddle their institutions at the same time?

    Enquiring minds want to know.

  • by godrik (1287354) on Thursday February 23, 2012 @09:25AM (#39136069)

    I agree with you. The point of OP remains. forcing people to have a publication count won't solve anything. Close to the deadline, people will start submitting crappy papers until they pass the quota.

    You can not put a simple counting rule to administrate people whose job is to understand, develop and bypass models. Researcher are the less suitable people for being subject to this type of rules.

  • Re:Good riddance (Score:5, Interesting)

    by nine-times (778537) <nine.times@gmail.com> on Thursday February 23, 2012 @09:29AM (#39136103) Homepage
    The purpose of modern universities is not to teach students. They are businesses which make money by providing a resort town to 20-somethings, runing minor-league professional sports teams, and doing scientific research. The whole "education" thing is just a method of attracting 20-somethings to their resort, and publishing attracts more students than good classes do.
  • by sirwired (27582) on Thursday February 23, 2012 @09:33AM (#39136151)

    Professors are supposed to be teaching AND researching. If the focus was on teaching (especially undergrads) we wouldn't need professors for that kind of work; any post-doc would do, and do it for cheap.

    While turning professors into publication factories would indeed be a BAD idea, four "research outputs" over three years is not exactly a high bar to cross.

  • by j33px0r (722130) on Thursday February 23, 2012 @09:37AM (#39136205)

    One of the expectations when hired in many academia roles is to publish papers. If you don't want to publish papers then perhaps you should be taking on a different career or different position. If you are hired on as an assistant/associate professor at a major university, they will often only assign you 2-3 courses to teach per semester with summer courses being extra money in your pocket. Teaching 2-3 courses per semester is a part-time job and they are not typically paying you to be a member of a professional organization.

    With that being said, firing someone because their articles were not in the "Top Five" journals of their field is a little ridiculous if you consider how many universities, professors, and researchers are out there. Those journals can only handle so many articles, and even then the articles must align with the theme of the issue.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday February 23, 2012 @09:40AM (#39136225)

    It won't. Clearly. But you are missing the point.

    The whole publish or perish paradigm is set up because publishing professors typically have a stronger ability to get grants, which then help fund the university (which typically takes a portion of the grant money into a more general fund). Grant givers almost always look at the publication record of the applicants, and those who are publishing more are MUCH more likely to get the grant. And yes, this is even in cases where supposedly the grants are given 'blind'. Well-known authors in any field develop a distinct style and those who are familiar with the field are likely to recognize that style. Thus grants are given to people who are already productive.

    In the end, science research as funded via universities is a bit of a circular situation and it's all a bit self-congratulatory for the people at the top of their field. Which is of course why anyone wanting to do research in a field needs to attach themselves to one of the top researchers during under-grad/graduate years, so that they get the chance to be 2nd (or 3rd or 5th) author on a number of papers published by the BIGNAME. Then after they do that for a while, they get to be first author and BIGNAME moves to last author, but their names become strongly associated, and eventually the rising star gets to move into their own celebrity status, while the BIGNAME just keeps getting more recognition.

    If I sound bitter, it may be because this is system is hardly designed to foster innovation, and is hardly conducive to outsiders being brought in. The real rule is conformity to the status quo. If you start out trying to make your own name, or trying to publish things that go against the grain, then you will get quietly ignored by the publishers. Personally, I'm no longer in research, and I'm just as well off gone from that particular insanity.

    I have a good friend who has a PhD in astrophysics, but because all he really wants to do is teach, no one will ever know much about him. Will he ever make some great discovery about astrophysics? LIkely not, even though he's as intelligent as any person you'll likely meet. But because he has a passion for passing on the knowledge he has to new students of physics rather than spend years fiddling around with galactic simulations, he'll likely always have lower pay than most professors, and he'll likely never get mentioned as an important figure in astrophysics. And let's be honest, saying, "I inspired thousands of students to continue learning about physics" sounds trite and boring, but saying "I figured out why some stars go supernova and others don't" sounds much more 'important'. Honestly though, the professors that teach the rising students the basic grounding in a subject so that *the new students* of a subject can go on and make important discoveries are the ones that deserve a lot of credit. The professors that ignore students that aren't actively doing research *with them* are often (not always) doing little more than polishing an already sparkly name. Yes, they bring in money for the universities. Yes, the research they do is *often* important, and yes, we need people who are willing to do real research. Yet, at the end of the day, if we don't have people who are competent at actually *teaching*, then we are going to eventually get ourselves into trouble when all the students decide to go get an MBA so they can actually make a decent living.

  • Re:Dare I say... (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday February 23, 2012 @09:45AM (#39136285)

    As a academic who recently saw the light and left for industry, I can tell you exactly what they're doing (at least in the U.S.): activities related to grantsmanship and serving on committees! Getting a grant is a mixed blessing. First, you have to figure out how exactly to spend the money, including hiring people to actually do the work (e.g. graduate students, post docs, etc). Then, you need to write regular progress reports and keep track of the time and effort for people working on the project (accountability). Finally, you need to publish - which can be a very time consuming process since most graduate students and post docs now are not native English speakers. This all assumes that the experiments work. Keep in mind that during all this, you need to keep writing more grants so that the people you just hired are funded past 2 years. Depending on the source, the probability of being funded ranges from 3-20%, so most grant proposals written are a waste of time.

    After obtaining tenure, one is also expected to start performing more administrative-level functions. This includes spending countless hours serving on departmental, college, and university-level committees for all sorts of things. This is a huge use of your time but a necessary evil since your needs may not be met if you don't participate.

    On top of all this, you need to keep on top of what is happening in your field and current pedagogy, teach, and deal with all of the issues students have - and there are many.

    Academia at research-oriented universities has become a mad scramble for money and the students are the ones who suffer. The typically academic with a research appointment works many more hours per week than someone in industry and usually for 50-70% of the pay. Yes there are lazy ones, but after spending years doing that job I feel that it is partially earned!

  • by elrous0 (869638) * on Thursday February 23, 2012 @09:52AM (#39136345)

    Did you ever do research that wasn't heavily directed by your professor?

    My research was always assisted in various ways by my mentor professor and many other people as well. But it was still MY research, MY writing, and MY article at the end of the day. If I had listed everyone who critiqued it, offered me advice on it, or provided information for it as co-author, the list of authors would have went on for two pages.

    I was fortunate that none of my mentors ever had the gall to ask for such a thing (I was blessed to work with some very good people). But I knew plenty of other grad students who weren't so lucky. There was one prof who was NOTORIOUS for this. He would demand a co-author credit on papers and articles he hadn't even READ. If you were one of his grad students and you wrote a paper for another professor in a research class, and then you later decided to present it, he expected a co-author credit even on that. And he would openly threaten grad students who didn't want to do it (and since having a member of your dissertation committee turn on you was essentially the end of your academic career, his threats carried a lot of weight). And this prick was the DEPARTMENT CHAIR. He got that because he brought in a lot of grant money (the prick looked GREAT on paper, and wasn't above using all sorts of..."questionable" means of getting those grants).

  • by iamwahoo2 (594922) on Thursday February 23, 2012 @10:10AM (#39136487)

    It is not a quota. Quota's are given in advance and you work to meet them. In this case the University needed to reduce research salaries. They just happened to choose this existing metric to make a decision on how to meet their salary reduction goals. There is no indication that this metric will be used in the future. It is very easy to criticize the use of this metric, but beeing currently part of a work force that requires similar efficiency improvements, I can tell you that their is no metric or means that will not be criticized for being unfair to some individuals. In my own personal opinion, this approach is a hell of a lot better than the typical practice of protecting the highest paid and longest retained individuals.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday February 23, 2012 @10:12AM (#39136501)

    More important is that he may not have ever finished his proof of Fermat if he had to hassle with trivial papers to fulfill a quota. It's not as simple as Write it, submit it, watch it get printed. It often takes a year to get something to appear after it's submitted. Editors are picky, want stuff redone, etc. Sometimes it takes multiple resubmissions to have the paper finally accepted, all of which takes major time.

    One point of tenure is to allow people to work on difficult projects that might not pan out. Trying to prove Fermat is NOT easy--it took 400 years for someone to figure it out! Wiles surely knew that when he started that project, he might not ever get the answer. Certainly, if he were under pressure to solve something or be fired, he never would have worked on Fermat at all. That would be a real loss.

    Just putting out papers to put out papers is a waste of everyone's time. There's thousands of journals, most of which aren't so good. Putting a paper in there to satisfy a suite is a waste of time and money.

  • Re:Good riddance (Score:5, Interesting)

    by robthebloke (1308483) on Thursday February 23, 2012 @10:20AM (#39136575)
    Ex-Lecturer here! There are two aspects to every university. On one hand you have the academics. On the other you have the financial and admin side. Most academics care a great deal for their students! They may appear a bit aloof, they may appear to be thinking about other things, they may appear somewhat dis-interested in students, but if you understand what happens behind closed doors, you'd understand why. Most meetings between academics and admin depts go like this:

    Admin: We're doubling the intake of students next year, and we think you can do that with 25% less staff.
    Academic: We can't double intake, reduce teaching, and still maintain the quality.
    Admin: Sure you can, let me show you an excel spreadsheet.....
    Academics: Those sums are complete nonsense, it's simply not possible, here's the proof.
    Admin: Then let's take away your classrooms and computing equipment, and you can do all your lectures via skype.
    Academics: That's not going to happen.
    Admin: It is happening. Deal with it.
    Academics: Then we'll find our own funding....

    12 months later:
    Admin: You've got the largest amount of funding in the university, we're going to distribute that out to other courses.
    Academics: You can't. We're 100% funded by companies. You simply cannot take that money from us, the sponsors will not agree to it.
    Admin: Tough. We need to even up the distribution of funds. By the way, cut teaching staff by 25%.
    Sponsor: You've used the funding for things it was not intended, we're withdrawing all future funding
    Academic: We're f*****d
    Admin: No you aren't, simply go out and find more sponsors for the course. You did it last year, it should be easy to do again right?
    Academic: I quit.

    At least, that's why I no longer lecture anyway. It's a thankless task. You're constantly screwed over by admins trying to make a quick buck here and there. Your teaching suffers as a result, and the students end up thinking you're a lazy miserable so and so. If you concentrate entirely on teaching, your students get royally shafted. I've never met an academic who didn't have his/her students as their first priority. Most of what goes on behind the scenes is rarely, if ever, seen by the students..... so students often get the wrong idea about their lecturers.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday February 23, 2012 @10:58AM (#39136983)

    This is non-sense. It is hard enough to find time to read all the relevant positive results to our research, I can only imagine most researchers would prefer to read about approaches that work and try to adapt/reuse them to specific problems than to read about dozens of failed attempts (which could potentially succeed if tweaked).

    When you can actually show that a certain 'natural' approach can never work, this is publishable (provided the problem to which it applies is important). For instance, there are many such papers on what methods cannot possibly succeed to prove/disprove P=NP.

    IMHO, if you didn't prove a theorem why should I bother reading your paper?

  • by lahvak (69490) on Thursday February 23, 2012 @03:11PM (#39140089) Homepage Journal

    But at the same time, if a computer scientist paid to produce results hasn't come up with anything but less accurate image features and less effective scheduling algorithms for the last three years, maybe the *should* be fired or switch to a pure teaching position.

    Problem with that is that it will discourage people from tackling difficult problems. Say that a problem I am interested in has not been solved in over 50 years, most of the partial results that could be easily obtained has olready been done, and I think I have an idea that may give me some new insight and potentially lead to a solution. It would be great if I could solve it. On the other hand, the problem is obviously very hard, leading experts in the field has been trying to crack it for a long time, without a complete result. I may spend next 5 years trying only to discover that I simply cannot make it work. In the meantime, someone else will be solving one easy problem after another, putting out paper after paper.

  • by flyingsquid (813711) on Thursday February 23, 2012 @03:15PM (#39140131)
    According to the CV on the Princeton website, Andrew Wiles published 24 papers from 1977 to 2008, which averages out to less than a paper a year. So it clearly is possible to be a highly respected, important, and influential academic while publishing relatively few papers, and obviously quantity of papers isn't the best way to measure things.

    That being said, there seems to be this attitude that it's somehow inappropriate to even try to quantify academic output. But if you're a mathematician, why on earth would you be against quantifying things? Mathematicians even came up with a metric, the Erdos number, which quantifies how many publications it takes to tie you to legendary mathematician Paul Erdos, as a way of sticking a number on where you fit in the network of mathematicians. And if you're a scientist, you quantify your results and run statistical tests. Why is it expected to use numbers to describe fruit flies, dinosaur bones, or the red shift of distant galaxies... but god forbid, the university actually tries to stick a number on what you do?

    The number of articles probably isn't the best metric. One article in a journal like Nature, Science, PLOS Biology, or the New England Journal of Medicine is usually worth a half dozen articles in a specialist journal. A metric like impact factor (average number of citations per article in that journal) helps take that into account. Eigenfactor takes it a step further by weighting the citations- citations coming from Nature or Science count more than citations from the Journal of Fish Biology or whatever. H-factor offers a way of ranking individual scientists- if you have one paper cited once you have an H-factor of one, two papers cited at least twice gives you an H-factor of 2, three papers cited three times gives you an H-factor of 3, etc. Admittedly it's field-specific. The sheer volume of papers in certain fields inevitably means those papers are cited more.

    I think the University of Sydney is taking a simplistic approach to the problem, but I sympathize with their aims. You see really creative, productive researchers who are having trouble landing tenure-track jobs in this job market, while some tenured faculty sit back and coast. We need a way to get rid of people who aren't performing and replace them with people who will perform. And it's incredibly hypocritical of academics to say that you can't measure their success: academia measures applicants for college, grad school, med school and law school using test scores and grades. Why is it OK to examine student performance with grades and scores, but inappropriate to grade the teachers themselves? Why not figure out a way to keep the excellent academics and get rid of the bad ones, just like we weed out students? Yes, academic excellence is inherently hard to quantify, but academics are generally pretty creative when it comes to quantifying things that are hard to quantify... the idea that suddenly "oh, it's just too hard to measure!" strikes me as remarkably self-serving.

If the facts don't fit the theory, change the facts. -- Albert Einstein

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