From dysfunctional h-score fetishism towards M-type academia: A pamphlet

A blogpost by Martin de Jong
Dynamics of Inclusive Prosperity
Stressed researcher looking at a laptop

In a world increasingly fixated on academic metrics, where citation scores and h-indices serve as measures of scholarly success, Martin de Jong wants to challenge these ideals. He showcases the disparity between the demands of research and the often-overlooked responsibilities of teaching, especially in the context of the so-called "lower education". He challenges the prevailing norms and calls for a shift towards a more multifaceted, impactful, and inclusive model of academia, emphasizing societal engagement over mere metrics, and the importance of supporting all levels of education.

How LinkedIn and ScholarGoogle ruined my day

I spotted an important post on LinkedIn the other day. One of my international academic peers congratulated himself on having just crossed the magical border of 20,000 citations on GoogleScholar, with an h-score so high I already deleted it from the active parts of my brain. He invited others to join him in laurelling praise over him and received some 300 likes for that message. I also congratulated him, somewhat reluctantly. (To be honest though, other than his boastfulness, he is a very nice person.) I then looked at myself in the mirror and saw a face green with envy. How come I have reached merely a fraction of his score, even though I feel I am not less talented or dedicated than he is? I scurried back to my laptop computer to compare us on Scopus and on WebOfScience, and finally in utter desperation also on ResearchGate and on Mendeley, hoping that there the gap would be considerably closer. It was, but not enough for my taste. How could my publication strategies and tactics have failed me? Why had I not straight from the start of my career begged top scholars to routinely co-author with me based on mutual expectations? Why did I not fight harder to be first, last, or corresponding author to maximize the credits I get for my work? Should I perhaps spend more time promoting my work to see it catch headlines in a larger number of academic outlet stations? Did I squeeze out my postdocs and PhD students enough to further my own career? How much time had I lost in teaching Bachelor and Master students and performing other teaching activities going directly at the expense of the far more vital and enjoyable research tasks?

Fill out those online forms, if you can…

And on top of all that misery I am so busy. Even so filled up with work to the rim that I do not find the time to fill out frequently disseminated online forms from my employer in which I am individually requested to take stock of what exactly causes my high stress levels. What is my teaching ‘load’ (did I hear somebody say ‘burden’?) and how can it be reduced? How many hours do I routinely neglect my close relatives during the weekend because the call for submissions of research applications has Monday 9 AM as deadline? Would recruiting very substantial numbers of support staff to guide me in writing grant applications and outreach activities help me out? Answers to these questions can obviously not just be used to obtain insight into the question what makes academic staff spend many hours of overtime, but it can be used to encourage the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science to spend considerable amounts of extra tax-payer’s money on Higher Education and thus boost national economic innovation capacity? But in the end my obnoxious conscience takes over: wait a minute, is this exceedingly high work pressure really the result of structural underfunding that should immediately be compensated for, or is this pain inflicted by perverse incentives of a malfunctioning performance and reward system?

The inflationary impact of scientific peacocks in ‘Higher’ Education

Ladies and gentlemen, I think we have identified the higher education edition of the ratchet effect here. Male peacocks experience evolutionary pressure to grow ever more beautiful tails to secure female attention and generate sufficient offspring. Originally regular consumer goods transform into sophisticated gadgetry because competitive pressures drive producers to create increasingly outrageous special features and outperform rivals. Academics require steeply rising numbers of publications in highbrow journals to make it through university selection committees and secure tenure track positions. Vast amounts of natural, financial, and mental resources are poured into the rat-races that come along with these relentless ratchet effects. The common practice within universities is that research is both more valuable and more desirable than teaching because it is more fun, more important and the only road to the top. Consequently, more and more ‘high-quality’ journals are established to accommodate the flood of ‘super-impact’ publications from a growing numbers of ‘top-notch’ scholars who are invariably so busy that they leave it to junior staff and teaching assistants to acquaint young students with the scientific knowledge they crave for. Numbers of publications explode, numbers of academic journals follow suit and impact scores record steep surges year-on-year. The workload of journal editors has become immense, the % of desk rejects has gone through the roof and the self-confidence of young scholars to get their brainchildren accepted within a reasonable timespan has sunk through the ground. Inflationary pressures galore. Still, the extra efforts spent by most universities to look good on the Shanghai and Times Higher Education rankings for global top universities clearly do pay-off: we all know that on the latter TU-Delft ranks 48, EUR 99, and are quickly able to dig up the scores of national and international competitors. But have some of us also noticed that Utrecht University has opted out of this year’s competition because it considers the ranking methods flawed, the spirit of competition harmful to open science and the time spent on retrieving all relevant information wasted resources?

The deflationary impact of overcharged teachers in ‘lower’ education

So much for Higher Education. But now let us turn to lower education. How many hours per week do teachers there spend in front of classrooms of not always easily tractable pupils? And how much do they earn these days? How much of a chance do school directors have to replace them if they drop out because of burnouts, given the already dramatic shortfall of primary and secondary school teachers? Burnouts and career shifts are a very common phenomenon in those circles, for both directors and teachers. Would the imminent quality implosion of our ‘lower’ education system and its pupil output not justify a dramatic stepping-up of our national budget? What does the combination of genuinely high teaching hours, large numbers of unruly youngsters in one class, the need to maintain order without effective means to enforce it, and the prospect that shortages of teaching staff will only further increase in the coming years mean to that segment of the labor market? It appears that the deflationary pressures in primary and secondary school classes coincide with academia suffering from inflationary pressures. Mainstream economists often invoke the existence of ‘trickle-down effects’ when it comes to investing in elites with additional public funding to boost overall economic competitiveness. Higher spending on higher education leads to higher innovation capacity and then we all benefit, or so the dominant story goes. But things that seem too good to be true often are too good to be true. Let powerful model-based economic logics never overturn common-sense empirical hesitations! Extra financial support for the exponential growth in research papers that few people read hardly benefits the rest of society. However, spending more resources on addressing the needs of teaching staff educating the younger age brackets does feed more knowledgeable and resilient students into our higher education system. Inclusive prosperity, or as it is now commonly accepted in Dutch as ‘Brede Welvaart’, is not imposed from the top-down but boils up from the bottom: it ‘trickles up’. To get that recessive narrative through to the average taxpayer and the Minister of Education, Culture and Science, those defending the interests of primary and secondary schools need to master the art of effective lobbying. That is where the true basis of national innovation capacity lies: the presence of a widespread well-educated bottom, not that of a productive paper-factory at the top.

Breaking out of perverse resilient systems

Most of us have learned from a very young age that the future belongs to our youth. Unfortunately, since demographic developments have made our age pyramids urn-shaped we seem not to be drawing any practical lessons from this age-old wisdom. Researchers spend their time writing or reviewing research proposals for National or International Science Foundations to have a chance at winning precious and praised research money (= time) that they would have had anyway if they had just collected data or typed an article within that given timeframe. A corporate friend of mine once called that process of exchanging certain for uncertain research time an ‘unworkable business model’. These words stuck with me. Deploying ever more elaborate procedures for research grant applications to safeguard quality and select real winners at ever lower success rates feels like burning resources. Most academics feel the pain and sorrow this dramatically inflated red tape brings to them, but the odds are that ratchet effects make it quite complicated to pull out of such a perverse mechanism. What would it really take to reform modern academia? Erasmus University Rotterdam is leading the way in that positive societal impact has officially become part of its brand identity and a key driver factor in how senior management aims to assess the performance of its employees. It also resonates well with how the latest generation of students looks at life: purpose first, performance second. Neither staff nor students have any intention not to be productive, but both would preferably like to get there without unduly tough standards imposed on them. Still, ‘systems’ over and above our heads have this wicked tendency to be sticky: the whole international selection environment works against breaking out of our scientific peacock ratchet. Meanwhile, government, industry, and civil society have also learned the hard way that academic papers written by scholars are far from their bed and useless for their own practical problem-solving purposes, leading these worlds to stand with the backs against each other.

From h-type to M-type academia

And yet, it does not have to be this way: there is ample literature on engaged scholarship, as well as on the societal impact of academic work. There were times before the ‘publish or perish era’ when scholars were closely in touch with business leaders, public servants, engineers, and community workers to solve societal problems and experience the satisfaction of experiencing the emotion of making a difference to the wider community. Not all output was excellent. In some cases, political convictions deeply permeated scientific analysis making the objectivity of findings questionable. And not all participatory observation practices were properly recorded in logbooks kept in compliance with the instructions that rigorous methodological handbooks prescribe these days. But at any rate, neither were these engaged scholars standing with their backs against society nor monomaniacally absorbed by h as their key currency and meaning of life. My own experience, and I have heard similar stories from other scholars, is that making fieldtrips, taking expert roles in real projects, communicating on a regular basis with practitioners about their actions and preparing knowledge-based reports and presentations for clients who really need them are among the most rewarding and enriching experiences one can have as an academic. Universities and schools that place societal impact next to scientific impact will make space for a greater variety of equally important performance indicators and multiple models of career success: a Multiple Criteria Analysis for job assessment leading Multiple Career Paths. Publishing in top journals is great, but so is an encouraging supervision style for PhD students or motivating Bachelor and Master students by inspiring lectures. And the societal benefit of it is presumably Multifold. Writing a thorough research proposal is meritorious, but so is giving a powerful presentation about problems of inclusion and diversity in a company or helping local government officials understand how numbers of school dropouts from vocational schools in deprived neighborhoods can be reduced. Academic work can be so much more, so much more Multifaceted and so much more satisfactory than scanning articles for usable phrases and inserting additional references to please reviewers. Let us go further down this road and aspire to leadership in that M-type academic profile: a greater variety of activities with a greater variety of performance standards, a more constructive relationship with the outside world and true joy about fewer but more deeply lived research articles when they appear in print. Academics, like all other humans, are not actually peacocks. In fact, they do not even have tails. So, what is the point of holding on to the fetishism of dysfunctional beauty contests? Let us stop complaining that we are structurally underfunded: we need a structural reform so we can demonstrate our usefulness to the taxpayer again. And meanwhile, let us show the courtesy to other segments of the education systems that really require more money and care than they currently get. Knowledge boils up, not down.

Compare @count study programme

  • @title

    • Duration: @duration
Compare study programmes