A tale of two academic promotion standards in a single systemcommentary about the implications of academic publishing for promotion purposes in the Ethiopian higher education system following the launch of a directive by the then ministry of science and higher education (now the Ministry of Education of Ethiopia).
The directive, at the time, came as a sequel to the 2013 harmonised academic policy set to govern all Ethiopian public higher education institutions.
The purpose of the policy was to prescribe common, if not similar, academic policies and standards throughout the system, facilitate the smooth transfer of staff and students across universities and enhance the quality of education offered at all higher education institutions.
Although one of the major goals of the 2013 policy was to narrow the gaps and reduce discrepancies with regard to academic promotion within the sector, it was neither strictly adhered to by universities, nor properly enforced by the then ministry.
The noncompliance continued until the 2020 directive was issued with the purpose of instilling uniformity and improving standardisation and quality. This was coupled with a ministry that was more determined to see it through.
Purpose of the 2020 directive
The ‘Directive for academic staff promotion AR 01/2020’ was set to:
• Promote excellence in the cultivation, dissemination and utilisation of advanced scientific knowledge;
• Put in place a system that encourages, recognises, and rewards the exploration, preservation and propagation of knowledge in the form of up-to-date, clear and detailed rules, procedures and organs for assessing various forms of academic achievements (research-based publications, patents, work-of-art technology packages) submitted for consideration for the purpose of promotion and related recognition;
• Prevent the proliferation of substandard and predatory publishing, which is damaging the quality of scientific or academic publishing globally; and
• Regulate the disparities and diverse standards in the assessment of academic publications, patents, work-of-art technology packages, community engagement and clinical services for promotion and related recognitions across the sector.
In spite of these clear intentions, recent developments in the sector indicate that, just three years down the road, the 2020 directive appears to be a casualty of the same circumstances the 2013 academic policy encountered.
Two schemes in a single system
There are at least two different academic promotion schemes currently at play within the Ethiopian higher education sector.
While Addis Ababa University (AAU), the nation’s flagship, still maintains old standards set in its 2017-19 legislation and the 2017 Research and Publications Committee, or RPC, guidelines in the academic promotion of its staff, many other universities appear to have shifted to implementing the ministry’s new directive.
This holds serious implications for the country’s premier university and the sector at large.
Notwithstanding some similarities in a few areas, the standards set in the 2020 directive are more demanding compared to earlier practices, in terms of introducing additional and stringent requirements and ratings according to various types of publication.
For instance, the requirements set for professorship in the 2020 directive stipulate that an applicant to the rank of a full professor should have a PhD or its equivalent; at least five publication points; active participation in the affairs of the higher education institution; supervision of five graduate students, at least two of which are PhD candidates; and at least one research grant won as a Principal Investigator (PI).
Demands such as supervising postgraduate candidates and winning a research grant as a PI are new requirements as they were not clearly listed in the earlier guidelines of universities.
More differences are noted with regard to the types of publications accepted for promotion and their ratings.
Publication types and ratings
Similar to the Addis Ababa University’s requirement stipulated in its Legislation Article 33.4.6., the new directive stipulates that among a minimum of five publication points required for promotion to the rank of a full professor, a candidate is expected to produce a solo full-length journal article or at least three full-length journal articles in which she or he is a first or corresponding author.
In the new directive a full-length journal article published in a reputable journal is given 100 points, similar to the 2017-19 AAU legislation (Article 22.214.171.124.). However, unlike the AAU legislation, the directive makes further distinctions among different types of journals, with corresponding implications for an article’s rating.
An article receives 100 points only if it is published in a journal that is accredited or has an impact factor or cite score. A journal article in an accredited journal but with no impact factor or cite score receives 75 points while an article published in an unaccredited journal is given only 25 points.
This is perhaps a clear indication of the new emphasis given in the 2020 directive toward raising the standard and quality of publications as contrasted with their mere quantity.
From the outset, the new directive also appears to favour full-length peer-reviewed journal articles as compared to a book, textbook or a book chapter, all of which were more favourably regarded in previous rating schemes of many public universities, including that of AAU.
The legislation of AAU considers a book based on original research as equivalent to four articles (400 points) or two textbooks, but a published book in the new directive is given only 150 points. Whereas, a textbook is given 200 points in the AAU legislation, the directive assigns only 50 points for such an output.
In addition to assigning 25 points to a book chapter, the new directive stipulates that a book and a book chapter considered for promotion should be published by peer-reviewed publishers, indexed and have an ISBN.
In the AAU legislation, book chapters, research papers or articles published in peer-reviewed journals whose reputability has not been established could be rated as equivalent to a full-fledged article (100 points) if they pass through a review process initiated by the university to determine their academic merit and contributions to knowledge in the particular discipline (Article 32.3.6.).
In the 2020 directive, a teaching material, conference proceedings, short communications carry 20 points each whereas, in the AAU legislation, publications that appear in reputable journals under titles such as technical notes, short communications, discussions, reviews are taken as one-half of a full-fledged article or 50 points (Article 32.3.7. of 2017-19 AAU legislation).
The AAU legislation stipulates that research papers presented in forums such as scientific, academic or professional conferences, seminars and symposia and published in peer-reviewed proceedings are allocated a rating equivalent to one-half of a full-fledged article, or 50 points.
However, in the 2020 directive, while accredited conference proceedings with an impact factor or site score receive 50 points, those accredited but having no impact factor are given 37.50 points and unaccredited conference proceedings receive only 12.50 points.
In addition to making a clear distinction between recognised and unaccredited publications in its allotment of points, the new directive demands that articles published in international journals should be indexed in at least one of the three databases of Scopus, Web of Science and PubMed.
The new directive further requires that publication points accrued from journal articles should constitute at least 50% of the total publications required for promotion to the rank of professorship. This differs significantly from previous practices at most universities.
Towards a minimum threshold
Notwithstanding possible differences at national or institutional levels, the standardisation and formalisation of academic promotion in higher education systems is a global phenomenon. The Ethiopian system cannot be an exception.
As may be seen in the foregoing, the AAU requirements for academic promotion differ significantly and are less demanding compared to the national standards set since 2020. This suggests that the university may be promoting individuals who do not fulfil the national criteria to the rank of full professorship employing a protocol which is no longer used by other institutions in the country.
Institutions may have misgivings about a given promotion scheme based on the criteria set or the specific weighting given to each standard or may use their ‘autonomy’ as an excuse to abandon standards set at a national level.
However, the recognition and bias that comes with academic promotion often have several implications, including the validity of the procedures used, the acceptance in the wider academic circle of individuals promoted, and the status of the institution.
The reasons behind the AAU’s neglect of the national standards set as a minimum threshold for the sector are unclear but flaws and barriers in implementing such a standard may not only be damaging to the credibility and legitimacy of the system and the institution but also to the individual scholars seeking academic promotion as well.
Aside from encouraging other public institutions to follow this bad example, the AAU’s current practice may harm its image as a research-led university which is often regarded as a national trendsetter with comparable standards at regional and international levels.
This suggests the need for the university to examine the benefits and fallouts of abiding by the threshold requirements set at a national level and find mechanisms to reconcile its institutional interests with the national benchmarks.
As I argued in my 2020 article, equally important is the need for the ministry of education, beyond determining the minimum requirements, to seek mechanisms to enforce proper implementation of its directive and establish clear accountability lines to achieve uniformity in the criteria used for academic promotion across the sector.
Wondwosen Tamrat (PhD) is an associate professor and founding president of St Mary’s University, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; a collaborating scholar of the Programme for Research on Private Higher Education at the State University of New York at Albany, United States; and coordinator of the private higher education sub-cluster of the Continental Education Strategy for Africa. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com. This is a commentary.