How ‘publish or perish’ is ruining finance education

When is comes to research, it seems quantity has become much more important than quality. Flickr/Iscan

Imagine the following conversation between a finance academic and his or her supervisor during an annual performance review:

Academic: So, do you think I am ready for a promotion? Supervisor: Well, I see that your teaching is very good, service is excellent, but…. Academic: But? Supervisor: You haven’t got the numbers yet? Academic: Numbers? Supervisor: Yes, the required number of papers! Academic: How many? Supervisor: Oh, just a few more.

The supervisor is not necessarily a bad person, but is merely following the rules. Or should we say, applying the rules.

The rules say a certain number of academic papers is necessary for promotions. But, herein lies a dilemma – there is really no certainty about that number.

There are rarely any written policies at universities on how many papers are required for promotions, so the goal posts can keep moving.

More interestingly, if you are able to churn papers but have average or poor teaching record and little service to the university and community, you could become a professor very quickly. “Professor of what?”, you may ask. For many academics it seems, it doesn’t really matter.

Welcome to the world of publish or perish. And be careful, the “rules” may be literally applied. After all, we’ve got to keep the pot boiling!

What to publish?

So, if you are a finance academic, what kind of articles should you be publishing?

You’ve got to write about markets, asset pricing, risk management, and so on. More importantly, you have to make some predictions. How will markets perform? How can we manage the risks of investing?

It is fine if your predictions, findings, propositions have not been tested or have been proved to be wrong. You can just keep publishing, and keep making more predictions and propositions.

The journals will publish them anyway. After all, how would they survive without a constant flow of articles?

The most important question here is: how does a finance academic’s research benefit society? If only the quantity of research is seen as important, than it does not matter at all.

Moreover, your research may not even benefit you – it will be useless if you can’t even apply your research to your own teaching.

So, dear finance colleagues, don’t worry about the practical value of your research.

Getting the numbers

Here are some practical tips on boosting your research output:

  1. Do not delve too much into one area. You might learn a little that markets are not really efficient and gain some respectability and authority in the area, but the numbers will be very slow in coming. Your colleagues will leave you behind.

  2. Join your colleagues in whatever project they are working on. It does not necessarily have to be in your area or something that interests you. It’ll be worth the effort you will get another published piece.

  3. Even better, get your name associated to a project without any real input. It is OK even if you are fifth in line on the author list.

  4. And, do not worry about the practical usefulness of the theories, models and of your research to society. There’s no time to be ethical.

Teaching by numbers

Our obsession with numbers extends beyond just research output. Take the case of a class attendance. On one hand, universities are increasing their online presence.

A colleague remarked the other day that these days you can complete a university program from your bedroom. It sounds a bit like Internet banking.

On the other hand, we want as many students as possible to attend lectures. Even if the lecture is on a Friday at 8pm, we’re hungry for the numbers.

The student failure rate is also important. You can’t have everybody passing, so you need to fail some to satisfy a pre-determined percentage.

Likewise, the distribution of grades is important. You can’t award too many high distinctions, or else you might get the numbers wrong.

And let’s not forget about meetings. What happens in a meeting or afterwards is less important than, you guessed it, how many people attended.

Then you can go around telling others about attendance, which is of course the most important agenda item.

Social functions are the same. Who turned up, who did not, is a key question. Take the annual Christmas party, for instance. No, you can’t decide not to socialise. You have to attend, even if you hate it.

You also have to attend the odd research seminar, but it’s ok if you don’t say a word and don’t know anything about the presentation.

Again the relevance of the seminar is immaterial. What is more important is who asked the questions, how many questions were asked, who understands econometrics better, how many attended.

But there are some questions you should not ask, including what is the relevance of the research for society or the business world? What are implications for the future.

If you attend the seminars, meetings and so on, you make a claim in your performance review – that you are a good corporate citizen.

You can say that you have attended four staff meetings, two graduation ceremonies, one Christmas party, and six research seminars. If you don’t attend these and your paper numbers are not up to scratch, then you could be in trouble.

The moral of the story is: show your face, talk to a few people, and make sure they notice you.

Padding out the figures

When you do produce a research paper in finance, make sure it has lots of equations, models, even, lots of tables and diagrams.

Don’t worry that Paul Krugman, the famous US economist, said that equations and diagrams should be no more than just scaffolding used to construct an intellectual edifice. Removing all these leaves only plain English behind.

Also, the more the references the better. Cite anybody who who has done similar work.

And a tip on referencing: no need to read the literature that is to be included in your list – just get the list from another paper.

Just get the numbers, keep the pot boiling and publish or perish!