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”.