German excellence strategy ‘harmed research quality’

Initiative may have pushed academics to ‘salami-slice’ results, new analysis finds

August 10, 2020
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Germany’s excellence strategy, which funnels money and prestige into select universities to try to create a world-renowned elite, has actually cut the quality of research, a new study claims.

The pressure on German universities to climb rankings tables and become more known globally could have led to pressure on academics to “salami-slice” research projects into multiple, weaker papers, the authors suggest.

Since 2006, the country has spent billions of euros on trying to raise the profile and “international competitiveness” of a handful of institutions that trumpet their status as “universities of excellence”.

While this strategy has had a “positive effect on research quantity”, it has actually had the “reverse effect on research quality”, according to the first analysis to look at whether the scheme resulted in good-quality work.

“We found that from the point of view of international viability and recognition, the excellent initiative was useful for the universities, as they increased their publications,” said Alice Civera, a research fellow at the University of Bergamo, and one of the authors.

“But in terms of citation impact it was lower,” she said.

The analysis, published in the journal Research Policy and also involving scholars from the University of Augsburg, looked at winners and losers under the scheme from its introduction in 2006 until 2013, when it was known as the excellence initiative.

During this period, despite not receiving extra money, universities that failed to win excellence status actually closed the gap with their victorious counterparts in terms of citations per paper, which the analysis uses as a proxy for quality.

Controlling for other factors – such as a focus on highly cited fields such as medicine – “excellent” universities garnered “considerably” fewer citations per paper after the initiative started, Dr Civera said. For universities without excellence status, the drop was “less substantial”, she explained.

At universities crowned “excellent”, researchers pumped out about a third more papers per head after the strategy began, the study found. Professors at other institutions also upped their output, although not to quite the same degree.

The fear is that universities deemed “excellent” may have pressured their academics to push out more publications in order to propel them up rankings tables, said Dr Civera, “salami-slicing” results into more articles than normal.

“Policymakers wanted to enhance the visibility of German research,” she said. “But researchers are able to influence the number of publications more easily than the number of citations. This might lead to undesired outcomes like the phenomenon of salami-slicing.”

Other explanations for the drop in quality could also apply. It could be that “excellent” universities became complacent in their status, leading to a drop in drive among academics, she said.

And gilding institutions at the top of the system might have encouraged other universities below them to try to catch up, explaining why they appeared to close the gap in research quality, she added.

But the strategy appears to have become a permanent fixture of German policy. Last year, 13 universities celebrated winning “excellence” status in the third round of the programme, which comes with €148 million (£133 million) of extra funding a year.

“Clusters of excellence” – collaborations between institutions in certain areas of research – meanwhile receive €385 million a year.

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