SOUTH AFRICA: Incentive system bad for scholarship

Research has become, over the last decade or so, a commodity in South Africa. Of course, this has always partially been the case with applied research. Studies have always been commissioned or funded by industries and government departments, with the aim of improving upon the products or services provided, innovating new ways of doing things and increasing efficiency and effectiveness.

But the tentacles of the commodification of research have extended far beyond this kind of overt contracting of research for a particular purpose. Most universities, although not all, have instituted a system of incentives to encourage publications amongst staff.

The incentive system works as follows: if you publish in an accredited journal, or in peer reviewed conference proceedings or books, you receive a percentage of the subsidy provided to the university by the Department of Higher Education and Training for that research output; depending on the university, you may pocket some or all of this money, although tax will be deducted, or the money will be placed in a research account for you to use for further research.

The allure of this system is clear. You can subsidise your personal income by publishing prolifically. Or, if your university does not allow you the option of taking the money out, you have a research account that is not tied to a set budget and which you can use at your own discretion to attend conferences in far-flung places, buy the latest software or most fancy equipment, and fill your book shelves with expensive journals and books.

But the incentive system is, I believe, counterproductive in terms of scholarship. There are three principle reasons for this.

Firstly, it encourages what could be called salami-slicing publishing. Researchers may be tempted to cut up the research in as thin slices as possible in order to get the maximum number of articles published.

Secondly, the incentive system discourages collaboration and team research. In the incentive system, you receive a percentage of whatever your input is considered to be for a research output. So, if you are a sole author, you obtain 100%, one of two authors, 50% and so on. On this basis some researchers may think twice before putting in the labour that is required to make collaboration work. The benefit to cost ratio (if one thinks in these terms) may simply be too high.

While sole authorship is certainly to be encouraged, there are many research projects and research questions that can only be answered by having large teams working on the study. The time and effort that this takes up is often significant as getting academics on the 'same page' is notoriously difficult.

Finally, and most importantly, no distinction is made between top tier and bottom tier journals in either the subsidy formula or the percentage given to staff. Researchers may, thus, be tempted to publish in low tier journals in which the acceptance rate is high and the level of scholarship relatively weak.

I have personal experience of this, having previously worked at a university that provided such an incentive system. A colleague, a professor no less, gave me a list of the journals which are easy to publish in so that you could increase the amount of money you received from the university.

Compare such a colleague who, say, publishes six articles in low tier journals over two years to one who works studiously for these two years to publish what will become a seminal paper published in a top tier journal. The former colleague's six papers are virtually never cited while the latter's one paper is highly cited. Which, we have to ask ourselves, is better for scholarship and knowledge production in South Africa?

I work at one of the few universities that has not given in to the incentive system. It is argued here that active researchers do, in a sense, get 'rewards' for productivity because the university generously funds conference attendance and provides research funds. While you are given some time to get your research going, those who are not research active will eventually have such funding discontinued.

What is important about this system is that it allows for flexibility. A committee considers your application for funding and is able to make informed decisions about the quality of the research produced. And so the colleague who produces only one article in two years, an article of seminal importance, will not be disadvantaged because s/he has not had numerous research outputs. Colleagues who are active collaborators in large research teams are not disadvantaged simply because they do not work on their own.

The incentive system is a blunt instrument that serves the purposes of increasing university income rather than supporting scholarship and knowledge production in South Africa. It is essentially a managerialist solution, in which bean counting trumps over concerns for scholarship. It is time that we face the fact that research outputs are not necessarily the same as good scholarship.

* Professor Catriona Macleod is head of the department of psychology at Rhodes University. The full title of her article is "The Incentive System for Research is Bad for Scholarship".