Paying for publications is at odds with knowledge creation

The South African system of paying public universities for academic publications has had the unintended consequence of positioning research in instrumentalist and performative ways, which are at odds with the ideals of knowledge creation.

In South Africa, the national levers used to drive publication are as straightforward as they are blunt. The higher education funding formula includes direct payment, from the state coffers, to public universities for research outputs.

How the South African funding of publications works

The planning-steering model used by the Department of Higher Education and Training in South Africa (DHET) is evident in the national funding formula. In the formula, implemented since 2004, universities are paid for peer-reviewed articles, books, book chapters, and conference proceedings as part of their block grants.

If academic articles are to be funded, they have to be published in a journal listed on any of seven international and national lists.

The value of each unit paid for an article varies year-on-year depending on the national budget and the number of articles claimed by the 26 public universities. In 2020, R130,000 per article was included in the block grant. The allocation per article is divided between the public universities listed as the authors’ affiliations. The funds are paid two years after publication as part of the larger block grant that individual institutions receive.

While earmarked grants are expected to be used on specific projects, block grant funding is used along lines determined by the university itself, for all its activities, from paying salaries to painting buildings.

Unintended consequences

Our concern is that direct payment by the state for publications drives a ‘publish or perish’ mentality which undermines the quality of academic knowledge and nurtures a perverse understanding of knowledge dissemination. We see this playing out in five main ways.

Promotions and institutional key performance indicators, or KPIs, are developed around crude publication counts.

These systems understand publication purely in terms of metrics. But articles are the means of knowledge dissemination and are not the research itself.

Overemphasising these partial proxies leads to misunderstanding of the purposes of academic publishing. The driving force becomes ‘get published’ rather than ‘create and share meaningful knowledge’.

International ranking systems also use the metric of publications as a key measure of individual academic excellence and a university’s quality. The global ranking culture of metrics suggests that research dissemination is about the number of publications rather than building new knowledge.

Most South African universities pay commission to individual academics for their publications.

In some cases, this is a cash payment and in others it is paid into the academic’s research account. What we have in both cases is the application of the national formula at an institutional level.

Despite this being a mimicking of their own practice, the 2015 DHET Research Outputs Policy indicates that: “The Department [of Higher Education and Training] subsidises institutions and not individual authors or academics. Institutions should be cautious of directly incentivising individual authors as this practice is promoting perverse behaviour in some cases.”

Expectations around paying commission for research have been found to narrow the value of research.

Academics are encouraged through this process to see publications as commodities that they can get paid for, rather than an essential aspect of the knowledge-building process.

There has been a massive increase in predatory publications.

The rise in predatory publications suggests that the pressures to get published undermine concerns about quality of knowledge dissemination and impact.

Emerging researchers, who find themselves falling for these predatory outlets, may even find themselves facing formal warnings from HR (human resources departments at institutions), even though they are simply enacting the logic that permeates much of the university.

Equally problematic, most deliberations about predatory publications focus on how to spot and avoid them rather than how university cultures are enabling these corrupt businesses to flourish.

Increased publications of uneven quality overwhelm the peer-review process.

The direct funding for publications, regardless of the value of the knowledge contribution, was also seen to drive an increase in the burden experienced in the editorial and peer-review processes.

Not only do journals have to grapple with more incoherent submissions, but academics do not see the value of doing peer-review work because metrification means there is an unwillingness to engage in activities that are not directly paid for, or which do not feature on the performance management system.

Dubious affiliations grow in number.

To increase their publication count, and thereby their income, some South African universities broker deals with international researchers. These authors include on their publications the name of the South African institution so that the named university receives a subsidy. The researcher then receives financial incentives from the university.

While international collaborations and research affiliations are key to scientific advancement and internationalisation, in some cases, the authors have not even been to South Africa and are not contributing to the local knowledge creation endeavour the subsidy was intended to drive. A recent article by Alexander Andrason and Jessica van den Brink (2023) suggests that these abuses of the subsidy system can reassert colonial knowledge creation imbalances.

What can be done?

The direct funding of research outputs by DHET has arguably been highly successful in driving increases in knowledge production. But the unintended consequences increasingly outweigh the merits.

The commodification of knowledge is not going to be dismantled simply by changing the funding formula, though that may be a necessary part of the process.

To reclaim the academic raison d’être of publication, DHET and South African universities may have to consider nurturing more intrinsic incentives, libido sciendi as sociologist Pierre Bourdieu puts it, the ethos of curiosity, rather than spending money on extrinsic incentives for publications, and suffering from the many unintended consequences this brings.

With universities’ budgets already being slashed to cover the government’s National Student Financial Aid Scheme, or NSFAS, the last thing we need is for any publication funding to be removed from the university budget. This is not our recommendation. Rather, we need to rethink and come up with a far more sophisticated funding mechanism for research that addresses these concerns.

Sioux McKenna is the director of the Centre for Postgraduate Studies and a professor of higher education at Rhodes University in South Africa. Patrício Langa is a sociologist and professor of higher education studies, at the University of the Western Cape in South Africa and Eduardo Mondlane University in Mozambique.