Monday, February 27, 2012

Defining academic productivity

At the end of Saturday’s post, I said that I would discuss productivity in a future post. I decided to write a short post about academic productivity today.
I found a useful definition of productivity at the following website, at least in terms of how it can be measured:

‘The amount of output per unit of input (labor, equipment, and capital). There are many different ways of measuring productivity. For example, in a factory productivity might be measured based on the number of hours it takes to produce a good, while in the service sector productivity might be measured based on the revenue generated by an employee divided by his/her salary.’

Another definition comes from the Merriam Webster online dictionary
‘yielding results, benefits, or profits’.

There are difficulties in applying the first definition in its entirety to an academic researcher, because it is very difficult to directly measure a researcher’s economic productivity. The number of publications and grant funding (money given to the research organization where the academic works) are the standard ways of measuring an researcher’s productivity. A good number of publications often leads to more grant funding. And more grant funding in turn draws in more students. But all of this depends on the hierarchical level of the academic. It stands to reason that a staff scientist without a research group (students) cannot be as ‘productive’ as a professor with a large group of students around him or her. Can they even be compared? Yet they often are, especially when it comes to the numbers of publications produced. This is unfair, because in principle a large research group can produce many more publications than one scientist alone. Whether that is in fact true is another discussion. In any case, not all researchers get grants, which doesn’t mean that they are necessarily bad researchers. It simply means that they didn’t get funded this time around. But is that acceptable to the business administrators who control the research institutes and who insist on measuring productivity on an annual basis?

Most other research activities--e.g. advising, teaching, designing experiments, having meetings with students, and writing--don’t generate revenue. If a researcher/advisor spends several hours per week helping one graduate student who is clueless about how to proceed with his or her research article and data interpretation, how do we measure productivity in this situation? The advisor has invested time, energy and intellectual focus in these activities--meeting, advising, and discussing. What is the tangible product? Over time, the product may be (emphasis on the may) an article or two from a student. Or perhaps not, as this can depend on the whim of the involved student as to whether he or she will write those articles. There is no guarantee of a publishable article for all the hard work invested in the student. If graduate students aren’t productive and won't write articles, it can reflect poorly on the advisor because there will be no papers to publish unless the adviser ends up writing them himself. A lack of articles can lead to not getting grants. Published papers are proof that an academic is productive; proof that an academic has done his or her job, which is to do science and to train graduate students how to do science, as well as to write/help to write the articles resulting from research activity. But how many published articles are enough, and how many are too few? Is it quantity or quality that counts?

And what should be done about the academic researchers whose graduate students leave research for the greener pastures of the business world without finishing their PhD degrees? Who don’t stick around despite the huge investment of the researchers’ time and money for lab consumables, conferences and travel? Is this the fault of these researchers? Was it a waste of time and money to train them? The point is that these graduate students got valuable research training before leaving academia. It has to be accepted that whatever they do with that training afterwards is their business. If they leave the research world, well, then they leave it. No one can stop them from doing so. So here’s the rub. Should academic researchers’ productivity be measured by how many of the trained students go on to become academics themselves? If that is the case, it will take years before productivity can be assessed correctly.

The second definition talks about yielding results, benefits or profits. Research activities such as doing lab work, generating data, reading, advising, teaching and writing articles do yield results, but not necessarily profits, unless ideas are patentable, leading to collaborations with big business, e.g. pharmaceutical firms that can produce a profitable drug to treat a specific illness. But getting a patent approved can take many years. So it’s difficult for me to understand the emphasis on increasing academic productivity. I'm not sure what this really means. Again I ask, who will define this adequately, and will it be fair? It strikes me as rather naïve on the part of business administrators to not even make an attempt to understand the complexities of the academic research world, and yet this is the current situation—administrators who have no real idea of what academics do, yet who insist that academics increase their productivity so that the organizations for which they work can get their 'money’s worth' out of them. 

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