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Counting isn’t the only way to measure success

May 8, 2011

There is an increasing tendency to believe that success at universities is quantifiable. The independent international ranking systems are largely based on counting: how many articles are published, how much are those articles cited, how many faculty have PhDs, how many come from abroad, etc. The leadership of a university can easily internalize this tendency and even pass it down in the system. Deans start thinking about their own success quantitatively; department chairs do the same; and even research team leaders can fall into this trap.

We’re discussing this issue internally here at the University of Tromsø, where I work as the Pro Rector for Research & Development, and I blogged about it recently on our so-called rektoratblogg, which is available to those of you who read Norwegian. It’s true, of course, that quantity-based evaluation is here to stay. In Norway, part of the budget of every university is determined by how many articles our faculty publish.

But I don’t want the heads of our research teams to focus only on the numbers. Quantitative evaluation may be inevitable from a distance, but when you’re as close to a team as its head is, then I think there are much better ways to know if you’re succeeding. And I think they’re legitimate and important for chairs and deans and rectors and presidents to listen to.

Does the head of a research team manage to build up a well-functioning working environment where people look forward to being together with the rest of the team? Have you created a culture internally in your team in which people talk with each other about their research and help each other make progress?

Are you discovering something? Is your work leading to new knowledge? Are your colleagues at other institutions interested in what you’re doing? Do they advise their students to visit you or to study with you? Are you working together as a group to formulate questions that you’re passionate about finding the answer to?

An expert on productivity recently told me that research shows that productivity emerges in an atmosphere of joy and challenge, when there is a sense of contol, and in a framework of freedom, safety and fairness.

I’m concerned that the focus on numbers in research organizations is making those organizations less attractive places to work. And I want my university to be an attractive place to work! Let’s let the numbers be a side-effect of doing great work, something that comes naturally when we focus on doing something exciting.

I believe focussing on the issues behind the questions I posed above will make everyday life as a university researcher better. It will let people express the joy they have for their research, and as a result of that, their research will be better. A research team leader who creates a work environment where that is possible is a leader who is succeeding.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. Margaret Donald permalink
    May 29, 2011 03:13

    I would have thought that the productive environment where people work with joy and so on, should make a measurable countable difference.

    • May 29, 2011 18:38

      Thanks for your comment, Margaret. I think you’re exactly right. Or at least that would ideally be the situation. So at one level, what I’m writing about here is just the rhetoric we use. Still, suppose there is a group of researchers who could be doing better. I hear too many times of department chairs or even research team leaders saying things like, “we have to publish more” or, even worse, “you have to publish more.” What I’m trying to suggest is that instead one could say, “What can I do to make even better conditions for you to do your research” or “How shall we put our team to work to make the coolest discovery we can imagine?” In the long run, I think that will lead to increased publication, as you suggest. But I think it’s a much better way to do it, appealing to what we all really came here to do — namely figure something out — rather than taking bibliometric measures to the highest level of focus.

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