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Tenure is under siege across the United States, and the debate over whether and how it should endure implicates broad issues about the function of the university and higher education. When it comes to awarding tenure at research universities, research productivity is the primary criterion for promoting faculty members. But this yardstick draws on antiquated traditions that have yielded a deeply flawed apparatus for assessing faculty contributions and guiding scholarship.

For years, with rare exception, research productivity has been measured by the volume of publications in peer-reviewed, costly and difficult-to-access proprietary journals. Redefinition for the promotion and tenure process is now imperative, however, because we have haphazardly landed on a definition that has never quite fit and is increasingly nonsensical. If we started from scratch, we would reward research in the promotion process that is meaningful, equitable and accessible. Such a system would go a long way toward rebuilding trust in scientific inquiry.

It is true that to be promoted and tenured, faculty must be successful not just in research but also in teaching and service, the other core faculty duties. Few would disagree, however, that without robust and promising scholarship, even the best teachers and most generously collaborative colleagues will find themselves either denied promotion or switched to an untenured professional track. Universities emphasize research because it most directly serves institutions’ financial needs and is increasingly important as state support declines. Research brings in money directly and, through elevated national rankings, also attracts students’ tuition dollars.

Perhaps you have tried to explain the academic promotion process to family or friends who are unfamiliar with the campus environment: faculty must dispatch teaching and service obligations and make time to apply for and obtain external funding in a highly competitive market. Funding from state or federal sources is usually most valuable, as it provides a higher indirect rate of financial support that generally enriches the institution more than philanthropic donations and other sources.

Without funding, researchers must engage in more modest and—lacking project support—time-intensive research work. After many months of study and writing, they submit manuscripts to academic journal editors, who tend to get little, if any, compensation. (Some journals even charge to review the manuscript.) If the editors—other faculty members satisfying their own professional service obligations—find the manuscripts worthy of review, they distribute them anonymously to subject-matter experts who examine them for accuracy, coherence and worthiness of publication.

These peer reviews are a key component of the scholarly process, but this work is also uncompensated; it, too, is considered “service to the field.” Manuscripts may be rejected or subject to revisions, sometimes many revisions, before final publication in journals, many of which aren’t printed in hard copy. The publishers then charge steep prices for university libraries to have access to these journals—for them, it’s a very profitable racket.

But as libraries face budget constraints and difficult choices in selecting journal subscriptions, scholarly articles are often not easily accessible to the very researchers who produce them. Academic journals are sequestered behind paywalls that make it difficult for the public, and often scholars themselves, to retrieve the articles. Indeed, faculty end up paying publishers for access to journal articles detailing research that they and their colleagues conducted and content that they wrote and edited.

Your nonacademic friends and family might rightly wonder whether such a process optimally advances scientific inquiry or contributes to the salient medical, social, philosophical and environmental problems of our time. They might also question who profits from so much uncompensated labor.

An Explosion of Offerings

The pressure on faculty who are seeking promotion to elevate article counts, along with the incentive of the publishing industry to expand its product offerings, has also led, unsurprisingly, to an explosion of in the number of journal articles and new journals in recent years. Researchers sensibly splinter research findings into several articles rather than consolidate them into more comprehensive manuscripts—why author just one item based on study findings if three are possible? Research findings are spread ever thinner across articles and journals for the sake of elevating publication counts, threatening the quality and accessibility of meaningful findings.

Worse, faulty and fraudulent research are growing problems as researchers succumb to shortcuts to grow their publication list. Those problems arose even before the recent blindingly rapid advances in artificial intelligence, which will accelerate the process of generating articles—as well as peer reviews—that are even thinner when it comes to important content and thoughtful analysis.

Despite these dynamics, the academy continues to view research productivity narrowly. Peer-reviewed publications remain the coin of the promotion realm, even in the face of evidence that current measures are also inequitable—they tend to disadvantage women and faculty members of color (who remain underrepresented in the academy) in favor of white men, who are more likely to be the gatekeepers of journals and professional associations.

Moreover, it’s important to note that access and impact are intertwined. After all, a manuscript’s purpose should not just be to add an item to a curriculum vitae but should—to put it simply—make the world a little smarter. Scholarship should be easily accessible to other academics and available to those outside campus settings, as well.

Elevating diverse viewpoints has always been a purported goal of the academy, and the proliferation of journals, open-access publications and less formal internet offerings has undoubtedly expanded the marketplace of ideas. Thankfully, such open-access efforts are emerging within and across fields, with several philanthropies and the National Science Foundation providing important leadership and support. For the most part, however, research campuses remain stuck in antiquated measurements of research impact, using formulas never meant for individual influence and generally disregarding the sea change in the ways people consume knowledge. These emerging outlets are additional evidence that when it comes to research productivity and awarding tenure, our approach is increasingly outdated. Higher education can and must do better in rewarding research that is accessible and impactful.

Discovering Our Own Agency for Change

Some universities have proposed alternative models for quantifying research impact, worked to engage nonacademic audiences and started important conversations on expanding access, acknowledging the extractive and exploitive nature of much current research. As these efforts expand, university faculty members should recognize that this screwy system is enforced by university faculty members—in short, by us. As we recognize the problems of our current processes and our roles in them, we can also discover our own agency to push for change.

Various departments, schools and universities have already taken steps toward reform, but with stubborn academic traditions evident at so many levels of university review for promotion, change is patchy. Moreover, external reviewers, who are provided departmental guidelines, may nevertheless favor old norms in providing their reviews of candidates seeking promotion.

These traditions may seem too rooted to challenge, but as faculty members, we can start to bring about meaningful positive change. To be part of that change, I recommend that you consider the following strategies:

  • Work with your academic department to ensure that promotion guidelines align with well-articulated principles that value high-quality research that engages relevant communities of interest.
  • Ensure that promotion and tenure policies do not blindly reward quantity of scholarly production.
  • Volunteer on committees in your department, college, university and scholarly field, where you can influence what is valued as scholarship.
  • Resist pressure to rely on traditional and deeply flawed quantitative measures and challenge the specious use of impact factors as a measure of scholarly productivity.
  • Emphasize research that provides easy access of findings to scholarly and public communities of interest (for example, open access or community-based participatory research projects).
  • Recognize that engaged research that gives emphasis to relationships with these communities takes time and effort and should be rewarded (and not penalized) in calculating research productivity.
  • Encourage your professional research and academic associations to embrace reform in the promotion and tenure process, such as the recently adopted policy of the Association of Schools and Programs of Public Health.
  • Work with colleagues at peer institutions to identify shared measures of research productivity.
  • Send offer letters when hiring new colleagues that prioritize meaningful and engaged research. Make these priorities clear in solicitations for external reviews. That emphasis is especially important for public and land-grant institutions, whose missions compel such efforts.

Higher education changes slowly, and many actors benefit from the status quo, so the pressure to stick with tradition is strong. But without action, each of us is complicit in reinforcing an inequitable process that attenuates the connection between academic research and the communities it can serve. Each promotion cycle offers an opportunity to address these shortcomings and elevate the value of meaningful, engaged scholarship.

Clark M. Peters is an associate professor at the University of Missouri Columbia School of Social Work and Truman School of Government and Public Affairs. He holds a courtesy appointment at the School of Law and served for two years as the chair of the university’s Faculty Council.

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