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“Publish or perish” – the researchers dilemma


Part of my job as a lecturer is to do research on management accounting and related areas. It can be a really interesting part of the job and, yes I know this is sad, but I get a great kick of it.  Research in management accounting means getting out to (or surveying) businesses to understand for example, what management accountants do in practice. The outputs of research can be twofold, namely 1) integration into teaching, and 2) publication in an professional or academic journal. The latter is probably the main goal of most academics, but in some countries, more pressure is exerted to publish a certain number of research pieces in a given time period.

I read this article (Times Higher Education – ‘Publish or perish’ culture distorting research results) recently, which mentioned some work by Daniele Fanelli from the University of Edinburgh. (The original journal articles is freely available here) Fanelli points out that research is often better accepted if outcomes are positive. He is not (I think) saying that this is bad, but simply questioning if the way academic output is measured effects the way academics behave. To relate this is management accounting, it is the basic problem of placing too much emphasis of  a single or small number of performance measures. For example, profit is the most commonly known performance measure used by accountants and managers. In addition business also assess performance based on other measures such as health & safety, customer satisfaction and how “green” they are. Now, getting back to research, let’s assume the only thing academics are measured on is published papers, the big question is “is this one single output measure adequate to give  “true” picture. Well, to be honest as I’m a more a “newbie” to research (having only just got my PhD this month)  I don’t know the answer. But, given my experience as a management accountant, I would be a little concerned that any one single performance measurement does not give the the true picture. So, if an academic has to “publish or perish”, will there be manipulation of the “budget” or “budgetary slack” to borrow some management accounting terms. In other words, can targets –  e.g. x papers in n years- be achieved to the detriment of other noble objectives like teaching quality or student engagement? I don’t know, but it’s worth asking the question. Is their a thesis there?

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About martinjquinn

I am an accounting academic, accountant and author based near Dublin, Ireland.

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