Universities have been criticized for being divorced from the real world and failing to contribute to the society that funds them. The primary culprit blamed is the “publish or perish” mentality that exclusively rewards professors for racking up publications, even if they are worthless or rarely read. This mentality is also blamed for the notion that some professors don’t care about teaching.
One of the many contributors to this perceived state is the accreditation system, which has been accused of diverting professors from teaching by focusing too intensively on research productivity. As a result, accreditation agencies (such as the Accrediting Council for Continuing Education and Training or Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools) have shifted to a mission-based accreditation system that allows universities to designate which types of intellectual contributions meet its mission beyond only refereed journal publications.
Despite the new standards, however, universities largely continue to count numbers of publications instead of giving credit for other forms of intellectual contributions. As summarized by W.A. Roberts et al, “For good or bad the emphasis on research remains [despite the new standards] … and teaching efforts give way to increased research efforts.” (“The faculty perspective on the impact of AACSB accreditation,” Academy of Educational Leadership Journal, 2005.)
I would suggest that this is partially due to a lack of understanding of the standards, or the difficulty of measuring alternative forms of intellectual contribution (or simple inertia and/or laziness).
Business school example
I’ll use an example from the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB), which updated its Eligibility Procedures and Accreditation Standards for Business Accreditation in 2012.
The AACSB Standard 1 states: “The mission statement … must articulate the school’s focus relative to the production of intellectual contributions (i.e., discipline based scholarship, contributions to practice, and/or teaching/pedagogy scholarship).” It emphasizes: “The school’s mission determines the appropriate balance of activity among the three types of contribution.”
Standard 2 gives specific examples of allowable contributions beyond traditional discipline-based scholarship (peer-reviewed publications), including preparation of new materials for use in courses, creation of teaching aids, creation and delivery of executive education courses and development of discipline-based practice tools. “Generally, intellectual contributions should meet two tests: exist in public written form, and have been subject to scrutiny by academic peers or practitioners prior to publication,” state the primary guidelines from 2012.
So clearly, university administrators can give credit for far more than just the number of publications. But how?
I propose a system that would meet the guidelines while also recognizing real alternatives to published articles, including online and social media alternatives. I base my proposal on the following:
1) Administrators like to count numbers of publications because it is easy and unambiguous, so the proposed system must also result in a specific number that can stand up to inevitable grievances. The proposed system awards a number for each intellectual contribution as follows (Value = Weighting based on Mission x Weighting based on Scale x Weighting based on Quality/Impact).
2) Mission: The system must reward all three categories of intellectual contribution (discipline-based scholarship, contributions to practice, and teaching/pedagogy scholarship). The weighting factor given for each category will be based entirely on the university’s mission.
Currently the weighting for disciple-based scholarship is 1 and all others are given a 0. The new system would give all three forms of intellectual contribution some value. For example, all three would get a 1 if all three have equal weight in the mission statement.
3) Scale: All published journal articles have approximately equivalent scale – all are around 5,000 to 7,000 words and exist in written form. So the weighting factor for intellectual contributions of this scale would receive a 1. However a book would receive a higher weighting whereas a short article would get a lower one.
The guideline that intellectual contributions exist in written form seems like an anachronistic relic of the last millennium. Intellectual contributions will increasingly become multi-media works that may exist in other public archival forms. The proposed system would thus award points for non-traditional works based on the scale of the contribution (e.g. a book gets more points than a chapter, a software program gets more points than an iPhone app, and a movie gets more points than a video clip).
4) Quality/impact: Similarly, the guideline that contributions be reviewed prior to publication seems insular and antiquated. Why should the opinion of two anonymous academics be more important than 100,000 practitioners or a review by the New York Times? The review process will increasingly become public as professors contribute to the world around them and are subjected to scrutiny and comments by those who view their contributions. The issue is not when or by whom the scrutiny is provided, but some measure of quality and/or impact.
While traditional discipline-based scholarship can be weighted using traditional peer review, citation, and journal tier standards, we can weight the quality/impact of the other two forms of contribution using publically available metrics, such as number of downloads or number purchased. This means that professors should not just write something, publish and forget it. They should market their contributions and interact with their customers to ensure their intellectual contributions are impactful.
The following table provides a representative sample of how the proposed system would be applied in a variety of contexts. The examples show a university business program whose mission equally values all three categories of intellectual contribution:
This flexible system provides a simple tool to reward professors for all three types of intellectual contributions required by mission-driven accreditation standards. It is easily adaptable to different faculties and could serve as a framework to be used, for example, by universities seeking to implement community-engaged scholarship. Certain research-based universities might prefer to continue to focus exclusively on counting discipline-based journal publications. However, I think many universities should take a broader perspective as proposed here.
Change is difficult. Changing how we hire and promote is even harder. We can continue to do things the way they have been done in the past, and continue to accept widespread criticism, or we can try to find a way to embrace new mission-driven standards, as well as change the overall mindset that counts publications as the only valid form of contribution. This proposal is one such way.
Dr. Gedeon is associate professor of entrepreneurship and strategy at the Ted Rogers School of Management, Ryerson University.