Open Access

3 simple distinctions your government should eliminate from its research financing system

Governments develop elaborate strategies for documenting, evaluating and re-directing the activities of universities. To satisfy their legitimate need to demonstrate that public funds are being well-spent, those of us who work at universities must accept responsibility for telling about the benefits we offer society. While this should not be difficult, we are at times possibly too abstract for mass communication and that may be why we frequently see politicians pursuing new strategies for quantifying our work — new strategies for counting.

The current system can be used for political priorities. There are many that deserve attention.

Counting policies (and international rankings) often look at publications. When researchers’ publication activities are well-documented, incentive programs may be devised to refocus or redirect that part of their work. One example of such a system is found in Norway; it’s a system currently under evaluation and with a genuine opportunity for modification at hand, we should debate a few points that might make it better.

1. Eliminate the two-level system

In the first part of this three-part series, Do you make these 6 mistakes? A funding scheme that turns professors into typing monkeys, I described the system and argued that its two reward levels should be cut back to one. This would be the most radical conceivable change short of abandoning the incentive system altogether. It’s the change that would make the system more rational and give it greater integrity. That proposal required a whole blog entry of its own to explain; the three changes proposed below are less dramatic and they all involve eliminating artificial subcategories.

2. Eliminate the distinction between anthologies and journals

By rewarding publications in anthologies at a lower rate than publications in journals, the current system pressures researchers to shift towards publishing in journals. Furthermore, it conveys the view that getting published in an anthology is easier than getting published in a journal.

As a researcher who has published in both, I used to think this was right. I still think it’s a lot harder to get published in a good journal than in a good book. But I’m far less certain that it’s just as hard to get published in a bad journal as in a good book, even if the weighting system the government has adopted would make you think so.

Given the ever-growing number of journals and the broad range of quality seen in both journals and books, the distinction between anthologies and journals is not a reliable indicator of quality.

The full range of value can be found in both anthologies and journals. Yet the government’s reward for a publication in one of the best anthologies is only one-third its reward for publication in one of the best journals. This strengthens the message that our efforts as researchers should be focused on placing articles in journals rather than books. It is entirely unclear why the government should take that position.

Another reason the distinction between anthologies and journals should be eliminated is that it unfairly discriminates between fields. Many more research articles in political science than in chemistry are published in books. The incentive system codifies the assertion that articles in political science are worth less than articles in chemistry. There is no rational basis for such a claim. Hence, the different weighting of articles in anthologies and journals is an irrational punishment of those who are in “book fields.”

Is there really any particular reason for the government to want scholars in the social sciences and humanities to start using journals more than anthologies? Is it better for these professors to edit special issues of journals than collections in books? Even if it were — and the basis for such a potential claim is nearly inconceivable — should this really be a matter of policy?

A few articles in books and a few articles in journals will become influential; most won’t. So, let’s not quibble.

3. Encourage writing textbooks

While monographs get points in the current system, textbooks do not. And sometimes the distinction is difficult to make. Do questions at the end of a chapter make something a textbook? Does any presentation of original research make it not?

By rewarding the publication of original research but not the authorship of textbooks, the system again introduces a pressure away from the latter, towards the former.

And, frankly, if university professors shouldn’t be writing textbooks, then I don’t know who should.

Writing a textbook is long and laborious work. Textbooks not only communicate known results, but they also present new knowledge, at the very least in the form of a synthesis of the discoveries of other. Furthermore, textbooks often contribute to the development of a field through the responses of students and colleagues.

Instead of having to make black and white classifications of an issue that easily becomes grey, the system should continue to review and sort acceptable from unacceptable publishers, but one book from an accepted publisher should be treated like any other, independent of its target audience.

4. See the scholarship in anthology editing

Contributions to anthologies earn points. Unless they’re entitled “Introduction.”

It is common for editors to write introductory chapters to their volumes. These introductions position the subsequent chapters and argue for a conceptual perspective motivating the book. Introductions are works of scholarship and they convey research results.

As the system currently stands, an introduction that is actually entitled “Introduction” does not get points. By now, most of us have learned to give our introductions different titles, and we thereby collect points.

Inspiring such a development can’t be one of the great achievements of the system. Easing up on this little detail and letting an “Introduction” count would let us focus on more important things.

Rewarding
anthologies and textbooks at the same level as journals and monographs will position Norway to be a model internationally.

(Note that I am not arguing here that editing volumes in and of itself should yield points in the Norwegian system. Of course editorial work is important and essential to the progress of a field, but a proposal to reward the editing of anthologies naturally invites a discussion of doing the same for editing journals. The picture quickly becomes nuanced and complex and perhaps belongs in a different context, for example a discussion of how many of our activities should be included in explicit incentive systems.)

Eliminating oversimplified distinctions — between journals and anthologies, between monographs and textbooks, between introductions and other chapters in anthologies — will make the Norwegian system better and will position it to be a model internationally. It leaves a simple incentive for publishing in place but avoids micromanagement, unpredictability, and speculation.

The priorities reflected in the current system are simply not important enough for a government to impose. Fortunately, it’s all very easy to fix!

In the third and final installment in this series about the Norwegian research funding system, I will highlight two good goals the government has for researchers and suggest simple modifications of the financing system that could lead to their more rapid achievement.

 Part 1: Do you make these 6 mistakes? A funding scheme that turns professors into typing monkeys

Part 3: How to take charge of science policy: making research more visible

My interest in moving universities towards balance encompasses gender equality, the communication of scientific results, promoting research-based education and leadership development more generally. Read more

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