Yes, the incentive structure in the higher education and research industry should be reformed in order to reduce the inflation of academic degrees and research. That much is clear from the increasing numbers of cases of outright fraud and academic misconduct, including more subtle forms of data manipulation, p-hacking, and rising rates of (false) positive publication bias as a result. It is also clear from the declining numbers of professors employed by universities to teach the rising numbers of students, up to the PhD level. Yes, the increasing numbers of peer-reviewed journal publications and academic degrees awarded imply that the productivity of academia has increased in the past decades. But the marginal returns on investiment are now approaching zero or perhaps even becoming negative. The recent Science in Transition position paper identifies the issues. So what should we do? It is not just important to diagnose the symptoms, it is time for a reform. This takes years, and an international approach, as the chairman of the board of Erasmus University Rotterdam Pauline van der Meer-Mohr said recently in a radio interview. Here are some ideas.
- Evaluate the quality of research rather than the quantity. Examine a proportion of publications through audits, screening them for results that are too good to be true, statistical analysis and reporting errors, and the availability of data and coding for replication. Rankings of universities are often based in part on numbers of publications. Universities that want to climb on the rankings will promote or hire more productive researchers. Granting agencies and universities should reduce the influence of rankings and the current publication culture on promotion and granting decisions. Prohibit the payment of bonuses for publications (including those in specific high-impact journals).
- Evaluate the quality of education rather than the quantity. Examine a proportion of courses through mystery shoppers, screening them for tests that are too easy to pass, accuracy of grades for assignments, and the availability of student guidelines in course manuals. Rankings of universities are often based on evaluations by course-enrolled students. Universities that want to climb on the rankings will please the students and the evaluators. Accreditation bodies should reduce the self-selection of evaluators for academic programs. Prohibit the payment of departments and universities for letting students pass.
- We can have the cake and eat it at the same time. Let all students pass courses if the requirements for presence at meetings and submission of assignments are met, but give grades based on performance. This change puts students back in control and reduces the tendency among instructors to help students to pass.