Paying external mentors is the next wave of rankings gaming

Many emerging higher education systems in Asia are paying external faculty members to collaborate on scholarship when they should be investing in staff development, write Bruce Savre, Laurene Chua-Garcia and Anna Nguyen Loan

February 9, 2020
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A recent ad in The Chronicle of Higher Education caught our attention. Duy Tan University (DTU) in Danang, Vietnam, a comprehensive university of about 20,000 students, was soliciting external faculty to work collaboratively with DTU faculty in the social sciences and humanities. The ad stated that DTU would offer paid research and writing collaborations for external faculty to research and publish jointly with the developing faculty at DTU. Furthermore, the ad declared that stipends would be available for jointly published research appearing in Web of Science accredited journals. Published articles potentially could earn $1,000 (£773) per impact factor up to an impact factor of 5. Last, three-year collaborative contracts were being offered.

We get it. University rankings are all about staff publishing in high-impact English-language journals. But is hiring paid external faculty members to collaborate on scholarship the best tactic for DTU, or any developing university for that matter, to achieve a rankings boost?

The two biggest impediments to serious academic publishing by university faculty in many developing countries are poor English skills and an environment that is not conducive to building serious and sustained scholarly activity. Our experience in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) countries shows that there is no shortage of very bright and committed faculty, but for the most part they don’t have the English language skills and infrastructure to be successful.

With university ranking systems (including Times Higher Education’s World University Rankings) heavily skewed towards publishing in English-language journals, it goes without saying that developing universities should be placing English-language skills as a very high priority in both their hiring practices and their faculty development programmes.

While there are some effective mentoring programmes that link foreign faculty with anglophone faculty in other countries, they are typically limited to assisting with English grammar in journal articles. Importantly, those mentors are unpaid, and they do not participate as research collaborators or become co-authors.

Likewise, no amount of mentoring and collaborative publishing with paid foreign mentors can possibly elevate a foreign scholar’s English grammar skills to a level where they can operate independently over the long haul.

Second, as is common in the West and in elite Asian universities, there are best practices for ensuring that faculty develop as serious, impactful scholars early in their careers. Vital elements include reduced teaching loads in an academic’s early career, significant start-up money for research and liberal paid leave to nurture research activities.

Additionally, a crucial component is an internationalisation strategy that includes supporting faculty, students and staff to build their research programmes through collaborations with various institutions all over the world. Our experience is that few of these measures have been adopted in many developing universities.

It is our view, thus, that improving an institution’s performance in the rankings by paying foreigners to collaborate with faculty is short-sighted and does not properly prepare faculty to operate independently once the contract ends.

Also, there are potential problems with paid foreign collaborators especially if universities do not engage in due diligence in hiring. Some will have their own research agendas to pursue, and they might end up imposing their area of study or their particular research methods on the faculty. The end result is to prevent researchers from emerging systems from developing their own research interests and writing style.

A better way would be to give faculty the tools to develop their own research programmes. Motivated faculty exist in developing universities throughout the world; they just need to be given the agency to succeed. Meaningful collaborations are organic, not forced. Investing in faculty is the approach we favour.

Gaming world university rankings by paying external faculty members to collaborate on scholarship is a bad idea. Some might say that it is a quick way to improve faculty research and boost a university’s prestige. However, like most quick fixes, it will not get at the underlying cause of the problem. For that, developing universities need sustained investments in their greatest resource: the faculty.

Bruce Svare is in the department of psychology at the State University of New York Albany. His paper "A Cautionary Tale for Psychology and Higher Education in Asia: Following Western Practices of Incentivizing Scholarship May Have Negative Outcomes" was published in January.

 Laurene Chua-Garcia is based at De La Salle University, Manila, Philippines, where she is a member of the department of psychology and vice-president for external relations and internationalisation.

Anna Nguyen Loan is in the department of psychology at Hoa Sen University in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, where she specialises in clinical and counselling psychology.

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Reader's comments (3)

Perhaps for-profit ranking agencies may be part of this problem, not the solution?
What does this say about the heavy emphasis on world rankings and how it is distorting what we value about higher education? Universities must develop strong internationalization programs and the only way this can be done is through investing in faculty. Buying rankings simply will not work ...especially through coercing (paying) foreign English speaking faculty to collaborate with faculty in developing institutions seeking to raise their profiles. This is the kind of ill conceived and short sighted administrative thinking that pervades higher education today.
The integrity of scholarly activity is under assault in our present culture. Is there any wonder why? When incentives like this are used to lift rankings it cheapens the entire process. Hiring mercenaries is not a good way to go for any institution in the West or the East. Why are so many trying to cut corners? Yes, the emphasis on world rankings is part of the reason. But so is the overall emphasis upon a narrow definition of what we mean by scholarship. Is it only publishing in English speaking, high impact journals? How about those who engage in blog posts, commentaries, op-ed pieces, or publish in open access, on line journals. How about those who have impacted millions of people through software creation or through their work changing public policy such as medical policy?. Journal analytics does not cover this yet it may have greater impact than a journal article that gets cited 50 times over a 10 year period. We need to broaden what we mean by scholarship. It is not just high impact pay wall journals.