Friday, March 30, 2012

Sweet Home Academia, Down Under

A recurrent theme on this blog is the danger of attempting to measure scientific success by an oversimplified scale, and then forcing researchers to excel according to this scale. The risk is that a simplified measure, even if it was originally correlated with scientific success, becomes a goal on its own right, setting incentives for researchers to waste time on tactics that hinder progress.

A typical example of such a measure is the number of publications. Anybody who works in research knows that the number of papers produced is a bad predictor for the quality of research a scientist does. Not only is the frequency of publications strongly dependent on the research area, it also depends on the personal style, as well as on the number of collaborators and students. Some people write a long paper every couple of years because they want to have everything in place. Others write a paper about every small step. Yet others again are authors of papers they didn't even read.

You'd think this is so obvious that nobody can plausibly try to measure scientific success by counting publications. Then read the folling, via Nature News Blog:
One hundred academics at the University of Sydney, Australia, have this week been told they will lose their jobs for not publishing frequently enough. The move is part of wider cost-cutting plans designed to pay for new buildings and refurbishment to the university.

Letters were posted to researchers on Monday, 20 February, informing them their positions were being terminated because they hadn’t published at least four “research outputs” over the past three years, Michael Thomson, branch president of the Australian National Tertiary Education Union, told Nature.

Read the full article here.


  1. Very fitting... Is that a Greek saying? I hadn't heard of it before.

  2. The Wikipedia page says: "nobody ever fitted the bed exactly, because secretly Procrustes had two beds". I suspect that this is also the case in many academic-assessment exercises.

  3. Yes Bee it's a Greek saying; we use it describe this kind of situations...

  4. Management obsesses on what is measurable instead of promoting what is important. Management displaces discrete facts with overall ignorance (administrative despotism). Deformed decisions resulting from reality deficit disorder impose an abusive hegemony of beige celebrating the irresistible buoyancy of excrement.

    God save us from the congenitally inconsequential.

  5. Hi Bee,

    Is this all part of the austerity program that is sweeping across the world these days?

    What researcher and academics are experiencing are part of the "social order" being laid upon all economies?

    Goal posts, standards of meeting obligations?

    Welcome to the realities many people are experiencing without understanding where their next paycheck is going to come from.

    All that is left sometimes is the "union participation" that currently exists in society while even here "the legs are being cut out from under people who gather under the democratic processes of purpose and expression of rights under those same democracies.

    Is this all about tough choices or beautiful new architecture? Squeezing the system to gain dollars?


  6. Killing that waylayer Prokrustes
    was one of the heroic deeds of Theseus.
    Nevertheless he is immortal for inventing
    Prokrastination :=)


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