The importance of research to society and its link to prosperity and competitiveness is well documented. Global organisations and governments are increasingly prioritising research skills and the need for PhD training in national strategies. Beneath this glowing rhetoric and increased funding for PhD training are ever more personal accounts from PhD students and early career researchers about the struggles, challenges and detrimental effects of the current system.
As my colleague at Wellcome, Ben Bleasdale, recently highlighted in his blog, whilst there are many fulfilling aspects of a career in research, and the majority of PhD students remain fulfilled, satisfaction levels have been in sustained decline for decades.
More graduates are being trained than ever before, but concerns exist about the hypercompetitive nature of research and the extent to which declines in wellbeing are linked to an over-reliance on blunt, easy-to-collect metrics. If assessment focuses on measures of what is done and pays little attention to how research is conducted, pressures are likely to build and the declines we see in wellbeing will continue.
The use of blunt metrics has a potentially distorting impact on careers, collaboration, innovation, research quality and wellbeing more generally. James Wilsden’s report, The Metric Tide, sets out the issues well. The questions of whether and why students need to publish peer-reviewed journal articles hint at wider issues in the research system, beyond whether publishing in peer-reviewed journals is a good thing.
The PhD is a useful qualification for a very broad range of careers. Why, then, is there such an early and persistent focus on publications? Our own review of PhD training shows that supervisors place roughly equal weight on first-author publication as they do on completing and defending a thesis or transitioning to a career that utilises skills gained during PhD training.
There are many interconnected factors that make peer review publication such hard currency:
- frameworks for allocation of research funding use publication metrics as shorthand for productivity and impact
- research is international – publications are seen as a ‘passport’ providing easily understood credibility for researchers
- supervisors are incentivised through assessment to ensure publications are a product of research.
A UK academic I spoke to recently summarised often-referenced concerns and said, 'supervisors are very concerned with assessment frameworks; we get beaten about the head with them by our institutions. It affects the way we run our research. I’d be in a difficult position if I didn’t publish student work, sometimes in high-profile journals, and that means aiming for that most of the time.'
To make real progress, we must set new expectations for what excellence looks like. This is something we want to address at Wellcome and we’re committing to trying different initiatives to drive forward change.