We are all familiar with the aphorism, “Publish or perish,” challenging academics that unless they publish in reputable journals their careers will not flourish. The expression first appeared in an academic context 80 years ago in a book by Logan Wilson entitled The Academic Man: A Study in the Sociology of a Profession. A decade ago, universities in China began to incentivise their researchers by paying them cash for publishing in top journals such as Nature and Science. In 2016, the reward was $44,000, raising eyebrows among Western scientists for whom such financial incentives were anathema.
Two American economists have just published a paper in Scientometrics entitled “The marginal impact of a publication on citations, and its effect on academic pay.” Faria and Mixon argued that the quality of an academic’s research should be evaluated and those with a high rate of citations should be rewarded. To test their hypothesis, they studied the data for professors of economics at three state-run university systems – California, Florida, and Illinois – and they had access to each academic’s Google Scholar profile and salary history.
The authors developed a metric based on C, the number of citations, and P, the i10-index which is the number of papers that have each garnered 10 or more citations. The table at left is from the Google Scholar profile of Franklin Mixon. An earnings equation was introduced, linking a professor’s salary to the derivative dC/dP. The results showed that an increase in this metric by one-half standard deviation was associated with a salary increase of up to $13,500 per annum, although it’s doubtful there is a cause-effect relationship.
In South Africa, each university’s research income from the government is based on the number of publications produced by the institution’s researchers. Each publication is currently worth about $10,000 which means there is considerable pressure on academics to publish as many papers as possible, with some universities passing a portion of the funds to individuals as a bonus. Unfortunately, this policy is an extraordinarily blunt instrument since a two-page paper in a local journal is worth the same as a seminal article in Nature.
In 2008 I published a paper that proposed an alternative funding mechanism, and concluded: “Should we be rewarding universities whose academics produce the greatest number of publications, without regard to quality, or should we inspire our academics to aim for a level of scholarship that can withstand the scrutiny of an international audience? I believe it is the latter.” In China, the government has recently told institutions to stop paying bonuses for publishing in leading journals.