Quentin Hanley, reader in chemistry and forensic science at Nottingham Trent University, studied the research record of several US for-profit universities via Thomson Reuters' Web of Knowledge.
He found that since 1993 the University of Phoenix has produced fewer than 200 papers, which have garnered about 700 citations. The university is reported to have more than 300,000 undergraduates and over 60,000 postgraduates.
Dr Hanley said other major for-profits had similarly slight research records. He found fewer than 100 papers with just over 500 citations from Kaplan University, and just over 200 papers and some 1,000 citations from Argosy University.
"Their impact is on a par with a single medium academic at an approximately mid-ranked UK university," he said. "Calling an organisation with no meaningful scholarship a university is a bit like calling a muddy path through a forest a motorway."
Dr Hanley said he was prompted to undertake his study after the UK government said it would encourage private provision - including moves to open up the processes for gaining university title and degree-awarding powers.
BPP, whose parent company is Phoenix owner Apollo Group, became the first UK for-profit to gain university college status, in 2010.
Dr Hanley described US for-profits' research record as "just another indicator of failure, along with poor graduation rates, high cost, high loan defaults and repeated legal scrutiny".
A spokesman for the Apollo Group said that many teaching techniques pioneered by Phoenix, such as the use of e-books, were now considered best practice. A Kaplan spokeswoman said Kaplan's training activities in the UK had "a strong focus on teaching quality".
Howard Hotson, professor of early modern intellectual history at the University of Oxford, agreed with Dr Hanley that "essentially research-inactive institutions" should not be called universities.
He argued that the "dismal" research performance of for-profits was directly linked to their business model, which relies on driving down teaching costs. "Low teaching costs mean low levels of remuneration and poor working conditions. Few research-active staff are attracted by such poor conditions, and even fewer can remain research-active without the necessary time and facilities."
John Holmwood, professor of sociology at the University of Nottingham, noted that although some not-for-profit universities also produced little research, they fulfilled "research-like obligations", such as keeping local businesses abreast of scholarship, which for-profits did not.
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