Boost for academic recognition and reward revolution

Dutch academics are putting their foot on the gas in the rebellion against the uncritical use of journal impact factors to recognise and reward researchers, which was set in motion by the 2012 San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment, or DORA.

From early next year, Utrecht University in the Netherlands will officially stop using the so-called ‘impact factor’ in all its hiring and promotions and judge its researchers by their commitment to open science, teamwork, public engagement and data sharing.

And despite opposition from some Dutch professors, the sweeping changes are gathering pace, with Leiden University among the Dutch institutions also pledging their support with their Academia in Motion paper.

Professor Sarah de Rijcke, director of the Centre for Science and Technology Studies at Leiden University and one of the lead authors of the Leiden document, said: “We are definitely right behind this and believe a better balance is needed in the recognition and rewards for talents and performance in the different domains of research, education, societal relevance and leadership.”

She told University World News: “While teaching is one of the most important tasks of the majority of academics, the emphasis in appointments, promotions and grant applications is often on research performance using assessment criteria which place too much emphasis on simplistic quantitative metrics like the number of publications, h-index and journal impact factors.

“These are not only unsuitable, but a focus on publication-based metrics also undervalues other tasks which academics are expected to undertake, such as research with societal relevance and administrative duties.

“The Dutch recognition and rewards initiative attempts to create room for everyone’s talents and a better balance so that promotion can now also take place on the basis of teaching performance and other factors.”

Recognise teamwork and not just individuals

Teamwork, rather than a system that simply recognises and rewards individuals who produce highly cited research papers is one of the key changes taking place at Utrecht University, according to the institution’s open science programme coordinator, Sicco de Knecht.

He told University World News: “We must stop looking at academic performance through the lens of bibliometrics. Instead, we should have an open discussion about what universities are for and our common goals.

“The current focus on research to the detriment of areas like education, professional performance and public engagement is not healthy and we believe academia should be a teamwork business. No one is denying that research is important, but over the past few decades it has become the only thing that is really appreciated in academic work.

“The use of impact factors and the cut-throat competition for funding are causing high workloads and a lot of stress and it is also not always transparent what is being used as decisive factors in promotions or demotions as well as hiring and selection.”

Rankings part of the problem

“Rankings have played a big part in this problem. They have used easy to measure metrics, like the number of articles in top journals. But they have ignored things like public engagement as in societal impact and made them appear worthless because they are hard to measure,” De Knecht said.

This echoed a call for a shake-up to remove road blocks preventing a more diverse range of early career researchers from advancing into academia made by Noémie Aubert Bonn, post-doctoral researcher at Hasselt University, Belgium, during the 2021 annual conference of the European University Association in April, as University World News reported.

De Knecht said the movement for change had been increasing in pace in the Netherlands and elsewhere prior to the COVID-19 pandemic disruption of higher education and research activities in 2020, but it was now taking off again with the support of most Dutch academics.

Room for everyone’s talents

The 2019 position paper titled Room for Everyone’s Talent, published by VSNU, the association of universities in the Netherlands; NFU, the Netherlands federation of university medical centres; KNAW, the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences; NWO, the Dutch Research Council, and ZonMw, the Netherlands organisation for health research and development, was a major step forward, he said.

This declared a shared ambition to modernise the system of recognition and rewards and end the one-sided emphasis on research performance over all other areas and encourage greater diversity in career paths as well as stimulate an open science approach.

It led to a number of Dutch universities developing their own strategies for carrying forward the changes at institutional level, including Utrecht University’s Vision on Recognition and Rewards, which was published in February 2021.

This commits Utrecht to rewarding teams as well as individuals and focuses on open science and recognises the contribution of support staff and others involved, as well as academics.

It says guidelines will be developed that appreciate the full scope of academic work by building what it describes as the TRIPLE model, which encompasses team spirit, research, impact, professional performance, leadership and education, in no particular order apart from putting team spirit first.

Not all academics want change

But not everyone in Dutch academia is happy with these developments, with 175 academics signing a letter in the Dutch journal Science Guide, which was translated and published in English in an edited form by Times Higher Education on 3 August 2021.

This said Utrecht University’s recent announcement that it would ban measurable criteria such as impact factors from evaluation procedures in favour of an ‘open science’ system, which centralises the collective team at the expense of individual scientists, will “lead to randomness and a compromising of scientific quality, which will have serious consequences for the recognition and evaluation of Dutch scientists”.

The letter said this would have “negative consequences for young scientists who will no longer be able to compete internationally” and went on to warn that putting “a strong emphasis on open science, level of public engagement, public accessibility of data, composition of the research team and demonstrated leadership” were not scientific criteria and were instead “political” and would be difficult to measure.

The letter said the world’s big science powerhouse, the United States, was going in the other direction, with big US funders such as the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation focusing on scientific excellence and that they had not signed DORA.

De Knecht said that following the publication of the letter in Science Guide, a group of 383 early career academics responded saying that the new ‘Recognition and Rewards’ is the way forward.

He also said the movement to support the DORA principles was gaining support throughout Europe, with the European Research Council being among the latest to sign up to the change to a new form of recognition and rewards, also telling academics they must not include journal impact factors in their grant applications.

To date, 20,288 individuals and organisations in 148 countries have signed DORA, which recommends eliminating journal-based metrics in funding, appointment and promotion considerations and calls for research to be assessed on its own merits rather than on the basis of the journal in which the research is published.

Nic Mitchell is a UK-based freelance journalist and PR consultant specialising in UK and European higher education. He blogs at