Non-Publishers in European Universities: An Empirical Approach

The global research competitiveness of European universities, especially in such countries as Poland, Finland or Portugal, is clearly endangered if harsh policy measures are not introduced.

November 9, 2014

In a traditional account of the scientific community, full-time academics employed in European universities who do not produce papers, books or book chapters, should not be regarded as part of the scientific community. Following Warren O. Hagstrom’s claim in The Scientific Community (1965), published articles and books are “the most important channel of communication from the standpoint of the larger community. Those who do not contribute at all through this channel cannot be considered scientists”. Logan Wilson (1942) argued that “in the academic scheme of things results unpublished are little better than those never achieved”. From this perspective, no publications mean no research.

The data reported here are drawn from eleven European countries involved in the CAP and EUROAC projects (CAP: “Changing Academic Profession” and EUROAC: “The Academic Profession in Europe”): Austria, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom. The combined CAP/EUROAC dataset is the most comprehensive source of cross-national attitudinal and behavioral data on academics available today. From a full weighted sample of 17,211 cases across 11 countries, we have analyzed only subsamples of full-time academics (13,633) and academics working in universities (10,777). We have excluded part-timers to avoid distortions to the picture: the share of part-time academics in the sample is too differentiated, from 2-3 percent in Poland and Italy to more than 40 percent in the Netherlands and Switzerland. “Universities” were defined by CAP/EUROAC national research teams. Consequently, data are drawn from about 9,000 (N = 8,886) cases.

More general patterns related to European non-publishers are as follows: their share in the non-university sector is higher than in the university sector; and their share among part-time academics is higher than among academics employed full-time, consistently across all the eleven countries studied and regardless of the relative size of non-university sectors and the scale of part-time employment (with huge differentiation of the two across Europe). The percentage of self-reported non-publishers (in the three years prior to the survey of 2007 and 2010, depending on the country) is as follows: Finland 20.2, Germany 15.4, Ireland 9.1, Italy 5.4, the Netherlands 2.7, Norway 15.9, Portugal 18.2, Switzerland 12.4, the UK 5.7, and Poland as high as 43.2. More than 40 percent of Polish academics, and between 15 and 20 percent of Finnish, Portuguese, Norwegian and German academics (as opposed to less than 10 percent of Irish, Italian, Dutch and British academics) are actually research non-performers.

Non-performers may realize, perhaps early in their careers, that they are unable to attain major research achievements as expressed to their peers through the publication channel of academic activities. They may be voluntarily choosing other channels. Different institutional cultures (and national academic cultures) lead to different levels of research productivity. As Jonathan R. Cole and Stephen Cole argued in their Social Stratification in Science (1973) about physicists involved in “minor leagues”, they will “spend their time teaching, doing administrative work, and even doing a small amount of research for the fun of it. Many of these physicists probably achieve a satisfying degree of satisfaction in their local environments. Local prestige probably goes a long way to make up for failure to achieve national recognition”. This might be the case in Europe too.

In the age of massified universities, though, perhaps the scale is not surprising at all, and in some systems it is clearly being tolerated. The fact that in a country like Poland, the share of non-publishers exceeds 40 percent demonstrates how far away the Polish academy has drifted away from traditional academic values of combining teaching and research (that is, publishing) in universities. In 2011, a new law on higher education was passed and a new wave of reforms started, with a major aim of bringing research back to Polish universities.

A combined share of non-performers (0 articles) and low-performers (1-4 articles) among academics involved in research (employed full-time in university sectors) comprises between about 30 percent in the Netherlands and Italy and about 70 percent of academics in Austria. In four countries (Germany, Switzerland, Ireland and the UK), their share is about 50 percent, and in another four (Portugal, Finland, Norway and Poland), it is about 60 percent.

The global research competitiveness of European universities, especially in such countries as Poland, Finland or Portugal, is clearly endangered if harsh policy measures are not introduced. Poland provides a perfect example of research-focused and publishing-focused reforms: high individual publishing rates become as important in receiving competitive research funding and moving up the academic ladder as never before.

Certainly, in the age of massification, it is not realistic that every academic will publish. But it is still realistic, I believe, to expect academics in universities to publish. The prestige of universities in Europe rests entirely with research and publications, and teaching-focused sectors of higher education (with some exceptions, like French grandes ecoles) are not where prestige and recognition are located. There seems to be some place for “non-performers” in higher education in general but not in universities, and especially not in research universities. The link between universities, research and publishing across Europe is as strong as ever before, and in flagship universities, it is even stronger. “Non-performers” should increasingly either move from upper layers of national systems down to its lower layers or leave the academic profession. In competitive times, there is not enough place for non-competitive, unproductive scholars.

The rules of the game today are not different than before and individual research output makes a difference between high performers, low performers and non-performers in science. As John Ziman argued in Prometheus Bound. Science in a dynamic steady-state (1994), “research is not an egalitarian profession. It is a rigorous pursuit, where incompetent performance, as signaled by persistently low achievement, eventually clogs up the system”. Indeed, in European research universities, and in Polish universities in particular, “non-performers” may soon clog up the system. My feeling is it is high time for higher education policies to react.




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