Academics publishing pointless papers is another sign of a dire crisis in universities

Universities in the UK have received bad press in the past week or so. It was revealed that many of them have been admitting foreign students with much lower grades than those of British students.

The reason is a classic example of the importance of incentives in driving behaviour. Despite their many pretentions to wokery, universities have acted almost as a parody of the textbook model of rational economic choice. In a nutshell, foreign students pay more than domestic ones.

The fees they receive from British students have been capped at £9,250 a year since 2017. In contrast, foreign students are often paying £20,000 a year and more. So an increasing proportion of university students in the UK are foreign, even though they may not really be capable of dealing with the intellectual challenges of their courses.

But a much deeper crisis for universities was revealed last week in the Guardian newspaper. In addition to teaching, the other key role of a university is to carry out scholarly research. Huge amounts of money, both public and private, are received by universities every year for this purpose.

The findings are published in specialist academic journals. Authors submit a paper to a journal, and it is then sent out to other academics in the process called “peer review”. These are meant to judge the merit of the paper. If it is sufficiently good, it is published.

Academics have very strong incentives to publish in journals. Their promotions and their tenures depend in large part on the number of papers which they publish. So they act like rational economic agents and make great efforts to boost their publication records.

But it turns out that a rapidly rising number of papers which get through the process of peer review contain findings which are completely bogus.

Last year, according to a study in Nature, one of the world’s two leading scientific journals, more than 10,000 papers which had been published in academic journals had to be withdrawn. This compares to just 1,000 in 2013. They were withdrawn because their findings were fraudulent.

The problems do not end here. A vast number of academic papers are published each year. But most of these are of no scientific value.

There is a strong and rising demand from academics to publish papers. Their career prospects depend on it. And the supply of journals in which to publish has grown rapidly as a result. Even in 1980 there were around 15,000 journals. By 2000 the number had not grown. But there are now around 25,000 journals.
Further, the average number of articles per year in the journals has increased from around 140 in 2000 to 260.

The key way in which academics judge the value of any particular article is the number of times it is cited in the subsequent work of others. A few of the top papers in economics, for example, published by Nobel Laureates, have 50,000 citations.

But a paper in a highly respected journal published by MIT Press in 2021 showed that the average number of citations is less than one. Simple arithmetic tells us that if the average is less than one, many articles which are published have zero citations. Their implicit value is therefore zero.

Some of our universities do outstanding and important work which extend the frontiers of knowledge. But the sector as a whole, which is heavily dependent on the taxpayer, faces serious problems on a number of fronts.

Universities have created these for themselves by the incentive structures they have set up. Students are admitted on ability to pay rather than merit. Academics are incentivised to carry out worthless research. It is high time for major reforms in the sector.

As published in City AM Wednesday 7th February 2024
Image: Wikimedia
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