June 17, 2009

Who Should Be Paid for Danish Research?

After the American Century

The Danish universities are moving to what labor historians would call a "piece rate system." That is, money for research will be paid not on the basis of weeks or months devoted to research, but rather on the basis of how many items are produced.

A new form of exploitation may emerge in this system. Exploitation is a strong word, so let me be clear what I mean by it. Workers are exploited if another person or institution is paid for their work. If I build a wall, and someone else, not me, gets paid for my work, that is exploitation.

Is something akin to this happening in Danish universities? Quite possibly. Every university has a number of recent PhDs who have completed their studies and who teach part time. (In many cases they are paid only as teaching assistants, which I think should not be allowed. Once you have a PhD, the proper title and pay scale should be that of external lecturer.) My concern is that these recent PhDs do not have research appointments. They only are paid, and rather badly, for their teaching. Nevertheless, they do their best to publish articles and books, for that is the surest path to full-time employment.

Who gets financial credit for a recent PhD's publications? I have asked around, and it seems that these new PhDs are encouraged to register their work, i.e. put it into each university's database. The system's acronym is, ironically enough, PURE. But there is nothing "pure" about hiring people only for their teaching and then including their research in the university's productivity. Why should the university be paid for publications by people whom it does not employ to do research? How would you feel if, outside your regular job, you painted a picture or renovated a car, and then suddenly your employer was able to send a bill to the government for that work, while you got nothing?

Is this happening? I fear it is. I know for certain that when university departments undergo accreditation reviews, the publications of recent PhDs at times are included in the statistics. Admittedly, this is a gray area, because typically these publications are portions of a PhD thesis, rewritten into articles. And the PhD thesis was written while on a research appointment. Nevertheless, it does not feel entirely right or fair. And for how many years can a university claim the publications of its recent PhDs?

Note too that retired faculty also may continue to publish. Can or should the Danish universities be paid for this work, which again they do not support financially?

There is a simple solution to this problem. Pay the writer for a publication directly unless he or she has a university research contract. This would mean that if a person does not have university employment, they could still be rewarded. Why should the government pay the university for the completion of research it did not support? Why should a scholarly publication by a private individual be worth nothing, if a publication produced by a university employee automatically releases funding?

To see the absurdity, translate this into agricultural terms. Imagine that there are university farmers who are paid for the crops they grow. Imagine that there are private farmers who are paid nothing for their crops. And imagine that university farmers find ways to claim the production of the private farmers, in order to get a completely unearned additional subsidy. Who would think that a fair policy?

The Danish universities do not seem to have quite reached this form of exploitation, but they appear to be headed that way. No one consciously planned this situation, which rather seems to be an unintended outcome. But it has dire consequences. If such a system is allowed to flourish, then universities will profit if they can produce many PhDs, keep them around as poorly paid part-time teachers, and claim credit for the research they do on their own. This is presumably not what the government wanted to do by introducing a piece-rate system.

[For critique of the new bibliometric system itself, see March 21, 2009
The Bureaucratic Dream of Quantifying Research Results