Over recent decades, Australian universities have acquired a reputation among international research policy circles for strongly incentivising productivity or quantity of “outputs” in their research management frameworks. Reflecting national research policy settings past and present, key research performance measures used at Australian universities appear to be strongly quantity-based if compared, for example, to those typically used in UK or US universities. This is despite the fact that in all these three nations, university rankings constitute an important point of reference.

One important upshot of this focus on research productivity within Australian higher education has been the emergence of academic workload models within universities that directly link academics’ research productivity to their teaching load. The logic is simple: the more research outputs produced by an academic staff over a given period, the less teaching they have to do.

While not universally used, academic workload models directly linking research outputs to teaching load appear relatively widespread. In Victoria alone, at least four universities currently rely on such types of workload model to manage their academic workforce.

From a policy perspective, there are a range of serious problems associated with linking academics’ research productivity to their teaching loads.

To begin with, such workload models send a highly problematic message to academics, that teaching is inferior to research and, ultimately, sort of a punishment. Related to this, such models also further undermine the often-invoked research-teaching nexus, through effectively reducing the scope for engagement between students and research-active academic staff.

Beyond these issues, academic workload models directly linking research productivity to teaching loads tend to be deeply problematic from an equity point of view. Some of the workload models scrutinised for this piece only very inadequately incorporate a “relative to opportunity” mechanism, thus penalising staff who are experiencing career-interruptions due to, for example, carer  responsibilities. There also was overall little evidence of adequate consideration of lags involved in publishing quality research or achieving research “impact,” which is a problem particularly for early career academics.

Note too in this context that many academic workload models used at Australian universities treat research income as a key research output measure. This is not only problematic from an equity perspective, but ultimately amounts to putting the cart before the horse. By all accounts, research income is an investment into research to produce a range of outcomes; hence it should be considered as an input, not as an output.

Finally, and perhaps most interestingly, it can be argued that use of workload models incentivising research productivity has a range of problematic ramifications for the sort of research conducted at Australian universities. One core problem is that the range of productivity-focused workload models used at Australian universities tend to follow a basic assembly-line logic that prioritises quantity over quality of research “output.”  Even workload models that try to make adjustments for research quality usually treat quality merely as a function of quantity – for example, two quartile one journal articles are considered worth double the points of one quartile one article.

From a policy perspective, it is much more desirable for researchers to focus on producing a small number of high-quality outputs, be they publications or patents, over a given period, rather than try to maximise productivity by churning out lower quality outputs. A related problem is that productivity-focused workload models tend to disincentivise riskier or more-long-terms forms of research that may not as readily lead to a predictable number of outputs in the short term, but which may offer much better value in the long run.

Adding to this, productivity-focused workload models also invite a range of strategic responses aimed at inflating research outputs which, ultimately, further undermine the potential value of the research produced. Such strategies include but are not limited to, salami-slicing (cutting potential publications into the “least publishable unit” rather than publishing one substantial piece of research), the strategic publishing of a range of very similar papers that rehash content already published elsewhere by the authors, and forms of co-authorship where authors are added to publications to create the impression of increased productivity.

Overall, from a policy perspective, there seem to a range of deep-seated problems and perverse incentives associated with the “assembly-line” approach to managing academics’ research across what appears to be substantial parts of the Australian higher education system.

Peter Woelert is an associate professor in the University of Melbourne Graduate School of Education


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