Academia’s obsession with quantity revisited yet again…

By Joern Fischer

Some years ago, together with a couple of colleagues, I published a little note called “Academia’s obsession with quantity”. We followed up on this with another slightly longer note outlining a roadmap for “an academia beyond quantity”. Some years have passed, and I felt it’s time to re-visit these original ideas here. Have things improved?

I’d say most decidedly no. Perhaps not all countries are quite the same, but certainly Germany strikes me as essentially insane when it comes to the business of science. The implicit incentives are to raise a lot of funding (i.e. not even to publish, or have a high h-index, just simply to raise money seems to be desirable) – it’s not uncommon for successful professors in Germany to have 10-20 members in their lab groups (who may or may not talk to one another, let alone collaborate sensibly).

I have rarely heard anyone senior question whether more is in fact better; it’s largely taken for granted that more is, by default, better. I have, however, heard many PhD students complain about their supervisors being over-committed. I have seen nominally interdisciplinary projects fail because too many investigators each invested too little time; and I have had nominally transdisciplinary endeavours fail because nobody could be bothered to actually walk the talk about making time for stakeholders. Funding bodies encourage this behaviour through favouring multi-investigator mega-projects with weak leadership; and universities encourage it through rewarding their professors for their fund-raising “successes”. On top of this, we are assessed by how many hours we teach, and nobody takes any serious notice of the actual quality of our teaching – not in any way that actually makes a difference anyway.

As I see it, we’re in an academic world that is essentially insane – those suffering the consequences, such as junior researchers, will either drop out or adapt to the model of “more is better”. I am yet to see an institution make a genuine effort to systematically find ways for everyone to simply do less, as a way of encouraging that quality is being delivered. What I see instead is countless colleagues who are rushed and performing well below their intellectual capacity; who supervise well below their mentoring capacity; and who get a lot less enjoyment out of their work than they could if things were less insane.

What is needed, from my perspective, is a systematic change in the culture of what an academic environment ought to be like, starting with strong leadership to foster such an alternative culture. Do we really want to create places where “more is better”? Or do we want to generate places that are productive, but self-regulate their commitment such that they remain focused in their publication, teaching and mentoring duties?

I’m not advocating low productivity or laziness. But I have a hypothesis: if the most “successful” senior academics on average did half the teaching, half the fund raising, and half the number of publications a year – and instead double their mentoring and reflection before they take on random extra “stuff” – academia would do much better at advancing wisdom rather than just being yet another game where the only rule is that “more is better”.

5 thoughts on “Academia’s obsession with quantity revisited yet again…

  1. Hear, hear! I wish my university leadership would read this!

    I thought I’d share an absurd anecdote from South Africa. You wrote that universities seem to only reward fundraising, well, I recently had the insane experience of university leadership suggesting that the funds I had raised were from the wrong source!

    I received funding from the Flemish development agency (which is foreign funding entering South Africa with all the advantages of the relatively strong Euro), but I was told that I should rather attract funding from the private sector because the university is trying to be more industry-focused. So, not only do we all have to focus on spending lots of money, we also have to spend the right people’s money…

    What I find amazing though, is how the same people who complained about perverse university incentives while still academic staff, suddenly start promoting these very same incentives as soon as the enter positions of authority (e.g. dean or vice-chancellor). It makes me wonder if we don’t full understand the political pressure being put on these people once they reach positions of authority?

  2. Dear Joern, I fully agree with this! The mad race for quantity is pervasive and widespread in all academic fields. I also think that this race for quantity has promoted questionable co-authorship practices. Anyway, an important question remains, why this focus on quantity? I suspect that this focus is at least related to the fact that the metrics for assessing quantity are easy and straight forward (although not necessarily effective). The same cannot be said for quality. How do we measure quality? This question can be particularly daunting and complicated in multidisciplinary environments. Quality has a very subjective connotation and it often sparkles controversies and conflicts. For example, teaching quality can be assessed with student’s evaluations. I fully believe in this, I think students can recognise dedication and competence and are generally inclined to honestly highlight these aspects when they spot them. But many colleagues are fiercely against form of evaluation. It is not easy to find effective and widely accepted metrics for quality but I think they are more and more a necessity. I fear that, for various reasons, we have come to a point in which there is no more red line between what is good quality and what is bad quality and, as a result, we are all boiling in the same pot of mediocrity. Worst of all, I am under the uncomfortable impression that many benefits from this status quo.

  3. Hello Marten, Ago, Falke — thanks for your comments. I agree with your points … the challenges in the positions of leadership are many; judging quality is hard; and there are positive examples. This is all absolutely true. I guess what I suggest is just generally greater awareness. Ultimately, academic systems are the result of what we make them. If we publish rubbish in large quantities, that’s our own doing; if we overcommit, that too is partly our own doing; if we don’t speak about it, but run along, that’s our own doing. I simply suggest that we all do our small part to change this insane culture, rather than blindly (or even proudly) running along with it. It’s just like any other “bad system” — there are reasons for it, but if the system needs changing, it needs people to say that it needs changing, again and again and again — until things change… Thanks again for engaging!

  4. 10-20 members in a lab group is not even the worst example, though. There are professors at some engineering schools in Germany that rather have 50 and above PhDs…
    There is a strict and simple solution available, which is to my knowledge practiced at some anglo-american universities. A professor must not have more than six (or any other low number) PhDs at the same time and hence the number of projects she/he is working on is limited almost automatically.

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