Understanding the pros and cons of academic inbreeding

Academic inbreeding is a socially charged phrase, with its etymological origins in the biological sciences. It may be argued that the naming of the phenomenon is unfortunate; nonetheless it is how this institutional practice is recognised around the globe, although in some places it is also known as institutional inbreeding. It is perceived as damaging to academia.

Yet its definition has been often misunderstood. Academic inbreeding can be seen as having narrower or broader definitions, but all are grounded in the principle of institutional immobility.

The narrower definition of academic inbreeding assumes that only PhD candidates hired by the same university where they graduated and who remain there throughout their career should be considered as academically inbred.

The broader definition assumes that graduation level is not critical as long as the academic is hired straight after concluding their bachelor or masters degree, becoming an academic at the same graduating university.

The broader definition of academic inbreeding seems particularly useful for assessing academic inbreeding rates and practices in disciplinary fields where until not long ago hiring only those with a PhD was not necessarily the norm (as was the case for law in many countries) or in developing higher education systems where the majority of the academic population does not hold a PhD.

There are cases where academic inbreeding practices have become so extreme that they encompass both the broader and narrower definitions of the concept.

A study of academic inbreeding in Japan identified a ‘four-line career structure’ in some universities, where someone's educational and academic path would be based in the same university from undergraduate level – bachelor, masters, PhD and first academic appointment at the same university.

The bottom line in the concept is, as American academic labour market dynamics experts Berelson, Caplow and McGee stated in the 1960s, that the principle of immobility is the fundamental pillar of the academic inbreeding concept.

Why is this important?

Understanding the concept of academic inbreeding is critical because academic inbreeding rates, which are often perceived as very high in some countries, may not be as high as one may think at first glance.

This is particularly evident when these rates are calculated by simply checking if the academic has his or her degree from the same university where he or she is working. This mixes inbred academics with others who have nothing to do with academic inbreeding because it does not account for the fact that some institutional mobility may have occurred some time between graduation and current employment.

Research universities in the United States sometimes sponsor a practice whereby academics finish their degree at one university, go and work for a few years in another university, and if they demonstrate themselves capable, they are hired back by the university where they graduated in the first place.

If checked by the graduating place-workplace binomium they would be considered cases of academic inbreeding when in reality they are not – they were institutionally mobile in the meantime.

Additionally, these academics tend to be highly competitive, connected and creative – characteristics that inbred academics tend not to have. The result is that several empirical studies in the past have shown mixed results concerning the relation between academic inbreeding and scientific productivity.

Recent analyses on the subject, based on the conceptualisations of academic inbreeding described above, have shown that inbred academics publish on average fewer research outputs oriented towards international literature than non-inbred academics – 15% in the case of the Mexican higher education system and 11% in the case of the Portuguese system – and that this lesser productivity is related to an excessive focus by inbred academics on knowledge that circulates and is reproduced within their university to the detriment of knowledge that circulates outside.

These same studies show that those academics who have moved from one institution to another, but who are currently working in the university where they graduated, have collaboration patterns and research productivity that are unlike those of inbred academics.

Another recent Turkish study found that the visibility of inbred academics' international research output is also substantially lower than that of their non-inbred peers. Inbred academics were found to have an h-index – which measures both the productivity and impact of the published work – that is 89% lower than non-inbred academics in Turkish universities.

Academic inbreeding: Rationale and common sense

Academic inbreeding therefore requires more of a ‘grey’ approach than a ‘black and white’ one. At some point in the development of higher education systems, this practice is likely to have been beneficial as it fostered a fast build-up of knowledge capability, research team cohesion, reinforcement of institutional identities and belonging, diminished risks including the recruitment gamble, and provided organisational stability.

The problem is that it may be necessary to curtail this practice when the challenges brought to universities by society and science demand flexibility, openness, dynamism and creative thinking.

Recent and ongoing research on the subject suggests that policies favouring transparent academic recruitment processes, mobility, and internationalisation and international-based evaluation processes can curb the tendency to inbreed.

At the same time, science and technology and higher education experts interviewed in the context of an ongoing study on the subject were unanimous that academic inbreeding practices should not be curtailed by legislation.

Impeding universities from hiring their own in transparent and meritocratic recruitment practices could lead them to lose resources that in some cases institutions – particularly those in developing countries – may critically need to develop key scientific areas.

Also, studies on the Mexican and Japanese higher education systems show that some academic inbreeding can benefit universities, mainly by fostering organisational identity and stability. The issue in the end is one of common sense and balance. A key question that policy-makers and university managers have to ask themselves is: which stage of institutional development their universities are at and if it is the right time to curtail academic inbreeding practices.

* Hugo Horta is a researcher at the Center for Innovation, Technology and Policy Research, or lN+, at Instituto Superior Tecnico – the Technical University of Lisbon.