Eliminate Excessive Academic Research

Professors today are required to perform many different types of duties, including instruction, student advisement, service on various committees, and speaking engagements. In addition, faculties face mounting pressure to conduct more research and publish more scholarly pieces. This pressure can be attributed to increased government funding for research and the lack of alternative measures of college performance, causing institutions to encourage more research by faculty. As a result of this, student and educational interests are increasingly losing out.

This disturbing tendency would perhaps not be a major concern if all the extra research were moving the knowledge frontier outward, but a growing body of evidence suggests that the magnitude of the benefits may be exaggerated, while the costs are severely underappreciated. Excessive research reduces the effort applied to teaching, and it also drives up the cost of college. To combat this, emphasis should be shifted back towards students and teaching.

Research on the Rise

Since the inception of the American research university in the 19th century, an emphasis on research has traditionally been the domain of a select number of colleges and universities that excel in this area and spend staggering amounts on high-quality research. Johns Hopkins University, for example, spent over $1.5 billion on research and development in 2007 alone, taking the top spot among universities.285 Even Stanford University, which ranked tenth in R&D expenditures, spent nearly $700 million that same year.

While it is expected that large research institutions such as MIT and Johns Hopkins would prioritize research, significant spending on research is becoming increasingly common at all types of colleges. Cleveland State University, for example, spent nearly $16 million on research in 2007. That spending would be enough to pay the tuition of roughly 10% of CSU’s undergraduate population. CSU is not alone. For the 2008 fiscal year, the average four-year public college spent 11.9% of its budget on research. Even small liberal arts colleges, law schools, architecture schools, and professional business schools, which have historically spent little on research, are increasingly devoting more resources to research.

Throughout the country, professors are spending significant amounts of time conducting research. Table 10.1 shows the time preference for and actual time spent on research by type of college. Note how professors in every category would like to spend more time on research than they actually do.

Table 10.1 Time Actually Spent On Research Versus Time Preferred On Research
Table 10.1 Time Actually Spent On Research Versus Time Preferred On Research

 

The Incentives for Research

It is clear from both institutional financial records and surveys of faculty time use that the importance of research has been increasing over the years. Ultimately, the emphasis on research has grown because both institutions and faculty are rewarded more for improvements in the quality of their research performance than for improvements in their performance in other areas. At the institutional level, we have identified two main drivers of this phenomenon.

The first cause of the increased emphasis on research can be attributed to a logical pursuit of the growing research dollars given out by the federal government. Figure 10.1 shows the dramatic increase in federal research funding between 1953 and 2007, which grew from $1.1 billion to over $31.5 billion (in 2009 dollars), with a large jump in the early 1980’s, followed by another jump in the early 2000’s. Such large sums of money have quite understandably provided large incentives for universities to conduct extensive amounts of research.

Figure 10.1: Research Spending at Colleges and Universities
Figure 10.1: Research Spending at Colleges and Universities

 

A second reason that research has become so important is that it serves as a major point of competition between colleges and universities. Universities’ reputations are determined almost entirely by their research prowess. One of the surest ways to move up in the influential USNWR rankings is to devote more resources to research:

Universities such as BU, NYU, and the University of Texas at Austin, which have moved up in rankings have apparently done so by improving their research status, primarily by attracting established researchers from other universities.

Because institutions of higher education are being pushed to conduct more research, they have structured their employment policies to encourage faculty to focus on research. The three main incentives used are tenure, recognition, and remuneration.

The primary tool used by institutions to encourage research by faculty is the tenure process. Journal publications, book authorship, and white papers are all the culmination of extensive periods of research and are very important in a professor’s case for tenure. While research requirements vary among colleges, the rule of thumb is that the more publications, the better. Tellingly, teaching evaluations count for little in the tenure review process.

Another incentive pushing professors to conduct research is the availability of individual recognition and awards for research. This recognition can be gained through such accomplishments as publishing influential pieces of scholarship or obtaining large grants. The appeal of awards and acknowledgement for research accomplishments is in stark contrast to the lack of recognition for excellent teaching. While good researchers are known worldwide, good teachers are all too often invisible, even on their own campuses.

A final incentive is remuneration. Financially, it is an easy decision when it comes down to spending time on teaching, which typically provides little to no pecuniary incentives for improvements, or spending time on research or publication, which may offer some financial gain down the road. Combine this with a low chance of seeing punishments (financial or otherwise) for poor teaching and it becomes easy to see why many professors devote much of their discretionary time to research.

Problems with the Current System

There are three main problems with the current emphasis on research: the costs are increasingly greater than the benefits, it reduces the quality of teaching, and it increases the costs of teaching.

Its Benefits are Increasingly Outweighed by the Costs

The importance of research for career enhancement has lead to something of a publication arms race among the professoriate. Presumably, virtually all of this research expands the knowledge frontier, a clear benefit for society. However, all this research comes at a cost and, due to diminishing returns in many fields, these costs are likely higher than the benefits. Due to these diminishing returns, much academic research today is of questionable worth, with little impact either on the stock of human knowledge or on educational practice. There is some research that it seems wasteful to devote scientific resources to, such as a study performed in the University of New Mexico’s Psychology department, which found that exotic dancers see variation in the size of tips depending on menstrual cycles.

But even research that is presumably more worthwhile can be overdone. For example, Mark Bauerlein has documented that there were 21,674 separate scholarly publications written on William Shakespeare between 1980 and 2006.291 When one considers the necessary resources, both in terms of faculty salaries and the time devoted to producing, editing, and publishing all of these works, it is clear that the opportunity costs associated with all of these are staggering. Charles Sykes sums up the current state of research in many fields:

[professors] insist that their obligations to research justify their flight from the college classroom despite the fact that fewer than one in ten ever makes any significant contribution to their field. Too many—maybe even the vast majority—spend their time belaboring such tiny slivers of knowledge, utterly without redeeming social value except as items on their resumes.

It Reduces the Quality of Teaching

Committing significant resources towards research conflicts with the primary mission of many colleges, which is to provide an education to a large body of students. Large expenditures on research reallocate funds away from this goal.

Perhaps more important than the financial distraction of research is the effect that it has on the individuals doing the teaching. Too much emphasis on research also crowds out good teachers. With good research falsely acting as a proxy for a good teaching, schools become more interested in hiring quality researchers than quality teachers. Individuals who are good teachers but bad researchers will either self-select or be weeded out by the tenure process, while individuals who are good researchers but bad teachers will get permanent jobs… as teachers. It seems naive of colleges to change hiring and promotion priorities away from teaching and expect no repercussions with regards to student learning.

The effect that more research has on student learning outcomes is hotly contested, with the pro-research camp asserting that research has a positive, albeit indirect, impact on student learning and outcomes. Those who oppose heavy emphasis on research in higher education question claims of real positive impacts on educational outcomes, especially when considering all the time that is taken away from the students to allow the research to be done. Scholars Remler and Pema also point out that researchers can be worse teachers:

Basic concepts may appear so obvious to researchers that it does not occur to them to explain those concepts. Those students who do not find the same ideas intuitively obvious and require explanation will be left behind. Thus, researchers might make it much harder for the students to learn the material, ensuring that only the most intrinsically able students are able to acquire the education or acquire it at a reasonable “psychic cost.”

It Increases the Cost of Teaching

Another problem with the emphasis on research is that it increases the cost of college in several ways. To begin with, researchers are more expensive to hire. Because the quality of researchers can be judged from a distance, there is an active market for researchers, with the top ones at risk of being poached away. Thus, hiring researchers to teach is more expensive than hiring teachers to teach. In addition, when professors spend more time on research, they spend less time teaching. In 1988, professors at public comprehensive colleges taught an average of 3.7 courses per term,294 but only 2.6 courses per term in 2004. The fact that professors are teaching fewer classes indicates that either class sizes must have increased, or that the university must have hired more professors to teach the same number of classes.

Solutions

If our higher education institutions are producing too much research of marginal worth, the solution is to cut back on the amount of research. At the federal level, one option would be to reduce the amount of funding provided for research. Such a move would lower the incentive for colleges and professors to dedicate so much time and resources to research. However, this is a problematic proposal because the main funding agencies, such as the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health, often fund cutting-edge research in the hard and biological sciences. This research does tend to advance the frontier of human knowledge, and while its benefits may not always outweigh its costs in hindsight, there is at least potential that it will. It is not as though the NSF were financing that 21,674th piece on Shakespeare, which has virtually no chance of yielding more in benefits than it costs to produce. Cutting research funding in such a manner would be like throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

A much better approach would be to try to target just the excessively low payoff research. Crucial to targeting this research is the realization that the resources used to “finance” all this marginal research come, not from grants, but from lower teaching loads. In other words, the cost of this research is the time that the professors could have spent teaching. Imposing higher teaching loads would be the most effective strategy for reducing excessive research. We address strategies for increasing teaching loads elsewhere in this volume, so we will not repeat them here.

Other than increasing teaching loads, one other proposal has been put forth to reduce the amount of research. If colleges were to voluntarily restrict the materials they would consider when hiring or promoting professors, the publication arms race could be brought under control. As Bauerlein notes:

Departments don’t put that minimum in writing, and they leave wiggle room for exceptional cases of one kind or another. But the fuzziness of the provision makes it all the more insistent. Not knowing exactly how much they should publish, uncertain as to whether five superb scholarly essays but no book will suffice, junior professors overcompensate and publish all the more.

Clearly outlining research expectations will help ensure professors do not make this mistake of overcompensation by conducting excessive research. Since a good deal of research is done simply to secure a job or achieve tenure, institutions can individually pledge to look at no more than, say, his or her five most cited publications or perhaps no more than 150 pages of scholarly work, when making promotion or tenure decisions.

Conclusion

Academic research has become a more important priority in higher education. The growing demand for research crowds out time that professors would otherwise spend on teaching related activities, resulting in a diminished focus on students, as well as an increase in costs.

The federal government’s growing interest in and financial support for research has accelerated this trend. However, the primary cause is the competition among universities to distinguish themselves, with excellence in research, one of the few ways for them to stand out. Because institutions are rewarded for research, they structure their employment policies (particularly tenure) to encourage research by faculty.

While research can advance the frontiers of human knowledge, too much of the research done today, such as the 20,000+ pieces on Shakespeare, fail to do so and are of little social value. This imposes significant costs to the extent that such research both detracts from student learning and contributes to the growing costs of higher education.

The main method for combating excessively low payoff research is to increase teaching loads, which would shift the energies of faculty towards students. Another option would be to limit the number of either publications or pages that will be considered by hiring and tenure committees. Colleges must be encouraged to reduce the emphasis they place on research so that the quality of teaching can be improved and costs lowered.