Financial reward for research output under the spotlight in South Africa

Questions are being asked whether the new funding formula will affect output in science journals. SHUTTERSTOCK

An investment in knowledge always pays the best interest - Benjamin Franklin

South Africa’s higher education funding formula for research output is set for substantial changes that come into place in 2016.

A new funding formula announced by the country’s Department of Higher Education and Training in March has prompted a thought-provoking reflection on current conditions in the world of academic cooperation and publishing.

Since 2004, the rules, requirements and processes on which the award of research output funds has been based have changed. The role of agencies has also changed with the Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAf) taking on the major assessment and recommendation activities of 2014 and 2015.

For scholars, there remain two areas of caution.

Proceed cautiously

University screening committees are tasked with evaluating submissions but they do not have to accept them, even if they meet the department’s requirements.

Also, the academy and department teams do not have to agree with the institutional committees. This rigorous process is aimed at protecting and enhancing the value of research produced in South Africa. Such a step can help raise the country’s profile on the international academic landscape.

Ensuring the credibility of South African research and writing becomes, then, an incentive for scientists and scholars to aim to have their work recognised as part of the international scene, where it will be taken seriously, read and cited.

Most critically, the pool of publication award funds does not increase each year. So as long as the pie’s circumference remains more or less constant, the award slices will diminish in relation to the increase in the number of successful submissions.

It would, of course, be ideal - or, at the very least, doing the right thing - for the department to increase the size of the pie. After all, that’s what the National Development Plan requires.

Failing that, the importance of research output, now foregrounded by the international ranking systems and strongly supported by the universities, will continue to provide incentives for the publication of journal articles and books. Even at R90 000, less than the current R113 000, subsidies do remain an incentive for both researchers and universities.

What the future holds

But the future is not necessarily bleak. When the department replaced the higher education funding system with a new formula in 2004, it could not have imagined it would give rise to an entire new industry.

Yet this is exactly what happened.

University administrations assumed responsibility for the management of journal and book publication outputs by academic committees and by research support departments.

What also happened was a dramatic rise in research publications and the graduation of students with master’s and PhD degrees. Publication outputs increased by 18.9% between 2000 and 2004, by 30.7% between 2004 and 2008 after the new funding formula had been introduced, and then by a further 53.2% between 2008 and 2012. This amounted to an increase of 250% over the entire period covered in data obtained from research conducted by Charles Sheppard.

And while the number of academic staff increased by 126% over the review period, the number of academic staff members with doctorates increased by 161%.

At the very least, it would seem to imply that sustained investment in knowledge production is a positive incentive.

And this is why the Minister of Higher Education and Training Blade Nzimande must continue to increase the annual allocation of funds to the higher education sector as required by the National Development Plan.

The Minister of Science and Technology Naledi Pandor must also boost her commitment to science. But the vigorous, critical factor in the growth of higher education research output is the considerable pressure placed on universities to improve their research outputs based on assessment by the global university ranking systems.

There are more than 30 such systems – but three dominate the field: the Quacquarelli Symonds (QS), the Times Higher Education (THE) and the academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU) - formerly the Shanghai Jiao Tong.

Of these, South African universities participate in all three but tend to focus on the first two. Both produce annual rankings at three levels: global, regional and for the BRICS countries. And there is a very high level of competition among South African universities to raise their positions globally, regionally and in the BRICS rankings, especially in the QS and THE rankings.

Journal articles and conference papers are still rewarded, but under more stringent conditions, while, under similarly stringent conditions, books are rewarded more generously than before. This is a recognition of the fact that different disciplines often publish in unrelated ways. Research based books are, for example, more common in humanities than in engineering, while conference papers are more often the vehicle for computer science research than, say, genetics.

In this academic Game of Thrones, universities pay serious attention to high quality, internationally recognised research. This increase in productivity, quality and international co-operation will, in all, likelihood improve each year.

This article is based on a leader in the July/August issue of the South African Journal of Science.