Cite unseen? Then step aside

A large number of professors in Italian universities produce no cited work.

6 February 2017

Anthea Lacchia

Agata Gladykowska / Alamy Stock Photo

Most academics are familiar with the adage ‘publish or perish’. But a study examining the output of Italian scientists has revealed a large number of academics either publish very few papers or produce work that remains uncited.

The findings emerge with a backdrop of young scientists in Italy struggling to find permanent research jobs, forcing some to relocate to universities abroad. “If someone doesn't produce any research for 12 years, they should make way for young people," says the study’s co-author Giovanni Abramo from the Laboratory for Studies in Research Evaluation in Rome.

Abramo and his colleague, Ciriaco Andrea D'Angelo, looked at the number of publications and citations of scientists in Italy between 2001 and 2012, based on data from the Italian National Citation Report, compiled by Clarivate Analytics, previously Thomson Reuters.

They found one in four Italian science professors, 8217 academics, did not produce any cited papers for four consecutive years, between 2001 and 2004.

Using data from the Ministry for Education, Universities and Research, the pair tracked the career progression of these scientists, whom they labelled unproductive because they did not publish anything indexed in the Web of Science for four years in a row, or because their papers remained uncited.

The authors show that of the 8,217 professors classified unproductive between 2001 and 2004, more than half (4,703) remained on faculty at their university in 2012. Of those staff, 2,517 professors remained unproductive between 2005 and 2008, and a further 1680 remained unproductive between 2009 and 2012.

The analysis did not consider whether professors had teaching responsibilities or other administrative duties. Furthermore, as the study is based on the citation report database of journals, professors who have published papers not cited in those journals were classified as ‘unproductive’ in the study.

But the authors say their findings suggest some academics are being promoted to senior researcher positions without the requisite publication track record.

To be eligible to gain the title of professor, scientists must submit their publications along with their CV. The study’s results suggest academic promotions are not based on merit and are consistent with repeated allegations of corruption in Italian academia, say the authors. This situation "is not acceptable, but there is no political will to change," says Abramo. “What we should do is tie stipends to scientific productivity and fire people who produce nothing,” he said.

The study, published in Scientometrics, also examined the publication trends and career progression of assistant and associate professors.

Almost 800 assistant professors were considered unproductive over the 12 years. Of those, more than 50 were promoted to associate professors during this time. Meanwhile, 39 of the 165 most productive assistant professors who maintained their levels of publications and citations over that time did not advance in their career.

Among Italy’s most productive associate professors (121), just under half were not promoted between 2001 and 2012. In contrast, 25 out of the 620 associate professors who did not publish were awarded a full professorship in that time.

Conservation biologist Bill Laurance, from James Cook University in Australia said: “In many places in the world you would not stay around if you didn't publish.” The fast-track [in academic careers] comes from research and bringing in grant money, he said. “I tell my students they need to be publishing all the time."

But Jeremy Simpson, the head of the School of Biology and Environmental Science at University College Dublin, says academics contribute to a university in other ways than publishing, such as teaching or filling a senior administrative role. “While there is pressure to publish, there is also increasing pressure [to do] all the other activities.” But these other activities are harder to quantify, says Simpson. “It’s a wider issue, extending across Europe.”

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