18 February 2008

Dear Editor

While I am as pleased as anyone over the inclusion of UCT among the top 200 universities in the world (Monday Paper, November 26th), I find ironic the comment by Prof Cheryl de la Rey on our excellent score (68/100) on citations to work published by UCT researchers. She is quoted as saying that "...we emphasise the importance ...of peer-reviewed publications in high-impact journals...".

I am afraid that this has little to do with UCT as an institution or its expectations, but a lot to do with the individuals doing the work: in most cases there is no incentive for high-level publication, other than the desire for personal and group betterment, and possibly the expectation that good publications will be rewarded when it comes to promotion. Despite the fact that publications in recognised journals are rewarded by subsidy from the Department of Education to the tune of R70 000 or more each, the Faculty of Health Sciences and the University Research Commitee give merely a token amount to researchers on the basis of publications during any given year, compared to what is actually brought in. In fact, there is not even a recognised avenue any more for reimbursement of publication costs - and it can cost R10 000 or more to publish a scientific paper in the new online free-access journals such as the BMC series. This seems to be rather unfair, given the high potential return to the University of what ends up being unrecompensed research fund expenditure!

A lot of this seems to have to do with the unchallenged assumption by Profs de la Rey, Tim Noakes, Kit Vaughan and Daya Reddy - stated in a SA Journal of Science opinion piece by the three latter UCT dignitaries recently - that monetary reward of scientific output would lead to people publishing a lot of marginal articles in marginal journals, so as to maximise their income. I have previously challenged this perception in a Science Faculty meeting, where I pointed out that, like any hypothesis, it could be tested - and very simply in this case. Just give a reasonable amount of money back to every research group that publishes well and often, and watch the results! For smaller and less well-funded research groups in particular, such returns could be very welcome and a very simple means of increasing research productivity.

It is also easy to penalise salami science - thin-slicing of research reports in mediocre journals - by linking returns directly to impact factors, or by simply not rewarding anything published in journals ranked below the top 5 or 10 in a given field.

While we as researchers are constantly told that UCT subsidises research, I must point out that it is research grants to individuals that directly support the living and working expenses of most of the Science and Health Science and EBE postgraduates, and that these students also bring in considerable direct subsidy and contribute to publication subsidy income - which I have never seen explicitly acknowledged in any UCT balance sheet.

I heard it said recently that the "UCT brand" attracts good researchers, and that people want to be here because of the prestige of the institution. I will diffidently point out that much of this prestige, and a lot of what the UCT hierarchy lauds about our productivity, comes from the people who are responsible for the research excellence - and not from some nebulous brand concept.

Time to stop taxing the geese that lay the golden eggs - and reward them, perhaps?

Aggrieved goose
Science Faculty


The "Aggrieved Goose" presents his/her perspectives and poses questions that may benefit from some contextualisation.

The nub of the issue is the choice and the decision made by faculties at UCT on how the "research output" income stream is allocated in their budgets. The choice made in our Faculty of Science is to dedicate this income stream to the stimulation of research not via direct financial rewards to active researchers but by employing additional permanent academic staff. This enables research-productive departments to attain the critical mass needed to build and sustain a strong research ethos.

A university that aspires to be research-led correctly attaches great importance to articles published in leading journals. Impact factors and citation counts are, inter alia, measures of our international research footprint. The value placed by the university on these outputs is evident in our Ad Hominem promotion process, including excellence level payments. The NRF evaluation and rating system, as well as its funding system, places emphasis on high-quality, peer-reviewed research outputs.

It seems unlikely that many universities in the top 200 in the world embrace the practice of giving direct financial rewards for research publications to their academic staff.

The allocation of resources will always, correctly, be a hotly debated topic in any university worthy of the name. Correct information about resource allocation is vital in building trust between all of us and provides the appropriate backdrop against which discussion and debate can take place. The distinction between "UCT as an institution" and individual members of staff is ill-defined and unfortunate. WE are UCT and each of us contributes in our own unique way to the life and to the reputation of our university.

Prof Kathy Driver
Dean: Faculty of Science


When Daya Reddy, Tim Noakes, Cliff Moran and I wrote our commentary for the South African Journal of Science, one of our primary objectives was to stimulate debate regarding the important role of scholarly endeavour in our country. In particular, we wanted South Africans to think about ways in which we might raise the level of our academic game. This letter by the "Aggrieved Goose" suggests that we may have had some measure of success in extending the debate.

As to the Aggrieved Goose's suggestion there is a hypothesis which can be tested - incentivise research groups by paying them for their publications - the data are already available. There are several universities that earn greater subsidy than UCT from the Department of Education based on the number of their publication outputs. Look at those papers and you will discover that many of them have been published in journals that lack accreditation by the Institute for Scientific Information. Look a little closer and you will see publications of dubious quality.

UCT has been ranked in the top 200 by the Times Higher Education Supplement which, as pointed out in our article, suffers from a significant bias introduced by highly subjective criteria (I know because I spoke to the author of the study two years ago). I believe the system developed by the Shanghai Jiao Tong University, though not without its own shortcomings, provides a more objective ranking for UCT, at position 252.

I agree with the Aggrieved Goose: it is our individual scholars rather than UCT's "brand image" which will propel our institution into the top league tables of the world. That's a challenge all of us should embrace!

Kit Vaughan
Deputy Dean, Research and Postgraduate Affairs
Faculty of Health Sciences


Aggrieved Goose is guilty of shooting the messengers. The focus of the article by the three UCT "dignitaries" was to draw attention to the need for more financial support for science in South Africa. We drew the analogy with the effects of a massive infusion of money into Australian sport after 1976 and which completely transformed Australia's competitiveness in international sport. Australian sport is run according to the dictum: Money in equals medals out. Our point is that if South Africa wishes to be internationally competitive in science then it can only do so if government makes a much greater financial commitment and the money is directed to those who can best use it (ie those who like aggrieved goose publish their work in good journals).

Of course it would be valuable for the individual researcher if UCT were to pass on the publication subsidy to those who write the articles. But this amounts to merely a re?arrangement of the (too few) deck chairs, with science benefiting in the short term with some other University functions suffering. This apparently attractive solution for individual scientists fails in the long term because it does not address the key problem which is too little money in the system to grow and sustain a critical mass of world?class South African scientists.

South Africa has the personnel and much of the infrastructure to be internationally competitive in science, just as Australia always had the athletes to be competitive in many sports. Like the Australian athletes, the greatest need for South African science is the money. But government and not the University has to be the source of those additional funds since the financial need is more than our Universities can provide.

One goal of our article was to pose the obvious question: Why does South Africa invest too few of her resources in science? And what are we, the scientists doing, to change that?

Professor Tim Noakes, Department of Human Biology.

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