Re-user friendly data

January 26, 2001

Researchers are being forced to recycle and duplicate papers in a system that rewards quantity with funds. Ard Jongsma reports

One in five researchers recycles previously used results in response to growing pressures to publish. That is the conclusion of a ground-beaking study to be published next week.

The work, which is based on interviews with more than 250 researchers at 12 Danish institutes, paints a detailed picture of the state of academic research in Denmark. It is also the first to document in detail the transition from a classical, protected research environment to today's harsh academic "publish or perish" culture.

In the United States, and to a certain extent the United Kingdom, this transition took place much earlier than in Denmark, where academia was sheltered from the treasurer's knife until well into the 1980s. Reforms to the research financing system have been introduced relatively recently, though not unexpectedly.

Danish sociologists have seized the opportunity to document changes in the academic environment. The relevance of their work extends well beyond the borders of the little Scandinavian country, exposing trends that were often assumed but never before quantified across the western world.

As elsewhere, Danish universities and research institutes are increasingly financed on a project basis, with less money available for free allocation. And specifically, since 1999 they have had to sign development contracts with the research ministry, describing planned activities and quantifying output. The primary measure for output is the number of publications. This has increased the pressure to publish for researchers and forced many to find ways of improving their performance.

"The recycling of research results is not the most disturbing consequence of the increased pressure to perform," said Bo Jacobsen, head of the Centre for Research in Existence and Society at Copenhagen University's department of sociology and leader of the team that carried out the study.

Jacobsen said that some interviewees complain that financing mechanisms encourage them to split cohesive research into small clusters in order to be able to publish them in different journals.

"Others, working on issues not guaranteed to cast off quantifiable results within a short period, admit that they can continue work on their main research only if they carry out some 'safe' research in parallel," said Jacobsen. He notes that often this was research they would not otherwise have bothered with. And finally, there were those who said that they published results that perhaps previously they would have judged not yet ready for publication.

In the study, one interviewee says: "Pushing up the quantity will result in more repetitions; the jargon among researchers is 'to launch a macro'. Another strategy is to publish things one normally wouldn't have written, in other words: to reduce one's own quality standards."

Another interviewee describes the motivations to split research into smaller parts: "When you feel you can do three articles instead of one about the same topic... well, then you obviously do that. (It scores better) and the extra work involved in writing the third, after you have written two, is very little. It is obvious that the temptation is strong. Of course, you consider whether it wouldn't be wiser to use the same time and write one really excellent article that covers everything and could have a larger impact. After all, it is easier to read one article than to read three. But when you have a system that better rewards writing three articles than writing one, you'd be silly to write just the one... if you can see the institute's level of funding fluctuate from year to year depending on the number of articles published."

The study captures the mood of a research community increasingly funded and directed by a political environment with little affinity with their activities. Some 60 per cent of the respondents said they felt government policy clearly illustrated insufficient understanding of the researching process. The researchers blame political focus on short-term social and economic needs and a swiftly changing line of ministers.

"Sometimes it seems as if each consecutive minister of research wants to be associated with the introduction of some spectacular policy," Jacobsen said. "The result appears to be that the research community has turned its back on its politicians and that we are in a situation where researchers are either sceptical or ignorant towards any policies introduced."

Jacobsen and his team document the consequences of the erosion of productive and sustained research environments by providing a statistical base for the assumption that a good and inspiring research environment produces good output and vice versa. In the process, they make short work of the myth that researchers are less demanding than staff in other organisations.

The study recommends directing funding towards the development of strong research environments rather than individual projects and to develop evaluation mechanisms designed to fit the true nature of research rather than the auditor's spreadsheet.

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