Incentives for researchers drive up publication output

Stellenbosch University in South Africa is cementing its reputation as a leading research institution by rewarding its most productive researchers with handsome incentives, to boost publication rates. Several universities – and the government – are employing incentive strategies to drive up research production.

Fifty awards were given out recently to 39 Stellenbosch academics who had made the biggest contribution to accredited publications in 2011. Of the 39 who received R50,000 (US$5,000), 11 received an extra R50,000 for high scores in publication units set by the Department of Higher Education and Training, or DHET.

Vice-rector for Research and Innovation Professor Eugene Cloete said research publications were exceptionally important: “They are a critical contribution to extending the university’s international reputation as an excellent research institution, and provide a significant contribution to Stellenbosch’s annual subsidy income,” he said.

Further, publications allowed new knowledge generated by Stellenbosch to be transferred to a global audience, enhancing the application of research results. “Researchers who publish their findings in quality expert sources are therefore regarded as some of the most important assets at any university.”

The awards are currently only for staff occupying ordinary positions within an academic department, and not for researchers who are already involved in research chairs and centres of excellence. “This is because our budget is limited, and because the latter group already works in environments where research funding is more readily available,” Cloete said.

Earlier this year, the DHET recognised Stellenbosch as the university with the highest weighted research output per full-time academic in South Africa. For the past three years, along with some of the country’s other top research-intensive universities such as Cape Town, it has featured in rankings of the world’s leading universities.

Government incentive

The government’s incentive system works by funding universities for articles published in accredited journals or peer-reviewed conference proceedings, or publication of books, measured in publishing units.

The DHET does not currently differentiate between national and international publications and will award the subsidy if the publication appears on one of its accreditation lists for journal articles, or was approved for subsidy by the relevant adjudication committee for conference proceedings, books and book chapters, said Dr Therina Theron, Stellenbosch University's senior director for research and innovation.

Theron said the DHET subsidy figures could fluctuate from year to year, but over the past three years had been on average around R120,000 per full publication unit. Multiple authorship results in sharing the subsidy.

“This is not merely a 'publication incentive', but forms part of the way in which universities receive their subsidy from government through the DHET,” Theron told University World News.

Several universities have adopted the DHET policy and procedures for measuring research output and rating and rewarding researchers for publishing papers, although there is considerable variation in how incentive funding is spent within institutions.

Institutions may decide how the incentive funds are spent. Some use the money for general research funds, while others give a proportion to the faculty. Often, funds are further divided between the faulty and the researcher concerned. Depending on the institution, the researcher may pocket some or all of this money, or it is placed in account for use for further research.

Between 2000 and 2010, South Africa more than doubled its paper publication numbers, from 3,617 to 7,468, according to research by Professor Anastassios Pouris, director of the Institute for Technological Innovation at the University of Pretoria, published in the South African Journal of Science. Research incentive systems are believed to be one of the drivers of the increase.

Not only about money

Providing incentives to researchers is not an isolated practice among South African universities, nor is it only about money.

North West University, which was formed in 2004 through the merger of two universities, complements the DHET scheme with its own institutional research excellence awards.

Professor Lucas Venter, director of research support, said the scheme aimed to increase the number of international publications, without compromising quality, and to motivate staff to publish regularly and improve the quality of publications.

In 2013, North West rewarded the first local publishing unit with R12,000, the second with R16,000 and the third with R20,000. The first international publication received R24,000, the second R32,000 and the third R40,000. Where there is multiple authorship, the reward is shared, however the Rand values mentioned also change annually.

Venter said the system rewarded more productive researchers with larger incentives per unit for publishing in local and international journals. The incentive had seen a marked increase in the number of international papers published – in 2008 the university had 52% of total output units, and in 2012 it rose to 66%.

Patricia Lucas, communications manager at the University of Cape Town, said the university offered no direct financial incentives to academic staff to publish in international or local journals.

Instead, there were indirect incentives like annual block grants to faculties. Some faculties used these to support postdoctoral researchers, buy equipment or refurbish labs, while others chose to allow further distribution to researchers based on their publication records.

She said the University of Cape Town’s research output, particularly in international journals, continued to increase each year but this was not entirely due to monetary incentives.

At the University of the Witwatersrand, or Wits, Director of Research Development Dr Robin Drennan said a three-year funding programme was awarded annually. The Sellschop award, which had been in existence for 15 years, was given to highly productive emerging researchers.

Wits also offered the vice-chancellor’s annual research award for the best researcher, which had also been running for almost 15 years.

“Promotion based on research productivity is a long-standing tradition. Individual research incentives have been used for about five or so years at Wits,” Drennan told University World News.

Drennan said numerous factors affected research productivity, ranging from workload models, funding and discipline to performance management and other incentives. “We should not overlook the personal pride and sense of achievement that also drive people to be research productive,” he said.

The University of Johannesburg (UJ) has implemented a DHET subsidy disbursement scheme. For publication in international journals, a minimum of 70% was paid to the researcher while a maximum of 30% was accrued by the faculty. In the case of DHET-accredited South African journal articles, of the subsidy transferred to the faculty, a minimum of 50% goes to the researcher and a maximum of 50% to the faculty.

UJ also has the vice-chancellor’s distinguished awards that include outstanding researcher of the year and innovator of the year, each providing R500,000 over a five-year period. The most promising emerging researcher wins R250,000 over a five-year period.

In 2007, the university council approved a recruitment and retention strategy for academic staff, supplementing the remuneration packages of those academics with potential to add substantial value to the institution through internationally competitive research.

Not all agree

Not everyone agrees that incentives for academics drive institutional success.

Three years ago Professor Catriona Macleod, head of the department of psychology at Rhodes University, wrote in a University World News report that the allure of incentives lay in boosting personal incomes or funding for research.

But in terms of scholarship, she argued, the incentives system was counterproductive. Researchers might be tempted to “cut up the research in as thin slices as possible in order to get the maximum number of articles published”.

It could also discourage collaboration and team research: individuals received a percentage of whatever their input was considered to be for output and could aspire towards higher monetary rewards.

Macleod added that researchers could be tempted to publish in low-ranked journals in which the acceptance rate was high and the level of scholarship relatively weak. “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,” she concluded.