Shake up reward and recognition of academic researchers

A radical shake-up in how academic researchers are recognised and rewarded is urgently required to remove roadblocks preventing a more diverse range of early career researchers from advancing into academia.

The current methods of research assessment overvalue outputs and ignore how the research is done and thereby threaten research integrity, according to findings presented to a session of the 2021 annual conference of the European University Association (EUA) on 22 April.

Noémie Aubert Bonn, a post-doctoral researcher at Hasselt University in Belgium and Amsterdam UMC in the Netherlands, investigated recognition and rewards of academic career profiles with Professor Dr Wim Pinxten for her PhD project.

Using focus groups and interviews with individual researchers, mostly from Flemish institutions, she looked at realigning indicators, assessment and careers with science and found that the indicators that were more important in advancing science don’t necessarily advance academic careers.

While openness, transparency, quality and innovation are key to scientific breakthroughs, what matters to getting ahead in academic careers was often prestige, status and competition, according to the 126 respondents to her project, said Bonn.

Assessments discourage collaboration

“Current research assessments expect exceptional outputs and so discourage realism; and look at researchers individually and discourage collaboration,” she told an EUA conference session which focused on recognition and rewards of academic career profiles.

With only around one in 10 research students gaining a tenured academic position, the “strong competition among young researchers is unhealthy” and “leads to a strong feeling of failure” for those forced to seek jobs outside academia, said Bonn.

“It also blocks diversity. So, it is always the same sorts of people that make it into academia. This blocks changes as the person who gets to stay in academia will be the one to teach the young students how to stay in academia and how to survive,” she said.

So what needs to happen?

“We need to change the indicators. I think this is quite obvious and has been well captured by the Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA) and others and a lot of changes are happening.

“But we shouldn’t stop there. We also need to address the assessments and how we assess the researchers with a broader range of activities and capture more of what the researchers do and how the research is done,” said Bonn.

She called for more team recognition; not just recognising individuals, and also recognition of negative results and replications “so that we have a more realistic view of science”.

Diversifying the profile

But the changes required will be difficult to achieve without diversifying the profile of academic researchers and widening access and Bonn said this will require “better employment security and salary security, so that researchers employed by an institution do not have to constantly apply for competitive funding to be able to have a salary”.

It will also mean looking beyond the institution, particularly at how institutions are funded by governments, and moving on from judging an institution by things like international institutional rankings, she suggested and questioned whether those universities that claimed to want to change academic culture but still highlighted their place in the international rankings based on research output were really serious when they said they didn’t want to be competitive anymore.

Change academic culture

Anne Husebekk, rector of UIT The Arctic University of Norway, said sharing experiences would be necessary to change the academic culture and suggested the EUA could play a vital role within the European context.

“We are quite traditional in Norway and bibliometrics are still very important in how we measure academic careers.”

But she said open access to research findings and a fresh look at measuring teaching quality were starting to change the way academic success was measured.

Marek Kwiek, director of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Social Science and Humanities and UNESCO chair in institutional research and higher education policy at the University of Poznan in Poland, said changes couldn’t be successfully imposed from the outside, or through ‘big bang’ national higher education reforms.

“We have [had] these kind of efforts for the past 30 years in Poland and Eastern Europe,” he said, adding: “Changing academic culture has to come from the inside.”

Measuring service to society

A question towards the end of the session asked panel members for their views on measuring service to society – or impact – through activities such as science communications or serving as experts to governments during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Kwiek said this was “enormously difficult” and that much depended on whether you were a professor already in the system, where there was value in developing links with businesses and “maybe advising the government”, or a young researcher who wants to advance their career prospects through articles in top publications and winning research grants.

Bonn added that the important thing was “not to fall into the trap of measuring service to society by services” through things like the number of committees you serve on. “We need to move beyond that,” she said.

Nic Mitchell is a freelance journalist and PR consultant specialising in European higher education. He runs De la Cour Communications and blogs at