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What Research for the Future? Balancing the Obsession with Publishing and the Need for Social Impact

30 April 2024

Roberto Di Pietra, Rector, University of Siena

In a couple of years (2024-2025), Italian universities will be called upon to participate in the fourth research assessment exercise conducted by the “Italian National Agency for the Evaluation of Universities and Research Institutes” (ANVUR). It is certainly an important step for the main institutions of Italian scientific research and, once again, a significant opportunity to reflect on the sense and meaning of research.

All the actors involved in universities and, particularly, all the scholars from Italian universities are called upon to submit the best results of their research activities for evaluation. This evaluation follows both the logic of informed peer review and bibliometric measurement.

It is not my intention to delve into the terms and mechanisms of this evaluation system. This is not the purpose of this editorial. Rather, I am interested in the consequences triggered by this established experience of research evaluation, and particularly the inevitably distorting effects on the Italian scientific community.

The research evaluation system impacts recruitment systems and career paths in Italian universities. A significant portion of State funding to Italian universities derives from research evaluation. All forms of financial resource distribution within each Italian university originate from research evaluation.

Therefore, it is inevitable that a large part of behaviors, choices, and the overall narrative of the Italian university moment revolves around the ability to publish, the quantity of research products, and the results of research evaluation. Much is said about the outcome of research and much less about the content of research, and even less about the impact of research. There is little discussion about the impact of research not only in the scientific environment but also and especially on society and people’s lives.

The importance of publication in the lives of many Italian scholars ends up becoming almost a sort of “obsession”. Rather than discussing the themes of their research, more focus is placed on publication and its placement in one or another scientific journal. The “means” seems to have become more important than the “end”.

I do not want to question the importance of research and quality research. Research evaluation processes are extremely relevant. The importance of these processes is particularly relevant considering the fact that in Italy a large portion of research is funded by public and State resources. There is no going back from research evaluation.

However, it is necessary to ask whether, after almost two decades of research evaluation, the time has come to restore centrality to “content” rather than “container”; quality rather than quantity of published research products. It is necessary to ask whether it is time to rebalance attention by shifting the focus from the obsession with continuous and abundant publishing to communicate the results of truly new research capable of bringing about changes.

It is not a question of the usefulness of research. The importance of basic research cannot be questioned. This is not the issue. The issue is perhaps to slow down the mechanisms of hyperproduction of published research products to achieve better dissemination of truly impactful research results. Impactful in the scientific community, first and foremost on society.

The obsession with publication confuses university scholars, altering their role, which also includes being good teachers. University professors are such because they are good researchers and excellent teachers. The time dedicated to teaching cannot be considered time taken away from research and therefore the possibility of publishing more.

This reflection tells us that some distorting consequences have occurred in recent years. I believe that these distortions do not only concern the Italian context. I believe it can be said that beyond the undeniable positive effects induced by research quality measurement systems, something must be done to rebalance the situation. We must place the content of research and its actual impact value on the society that finances it. We must focus on the multifunctional role of university scholars who are not “paper machines” but also educators.

If it is the measurement systems that determine these distortions, then we must correct the measurement systems by intervening to reduce the push for hyperproduction, to enhance social impact, to emphasize the multidimensionality of university professors.

I do not know how it’s done, but I know it must be done.

The topics I have tried to outline do not only concern the Italian context but assume international relevance. In this respect the Coalition for Advancing Research Assessment (CoARA) will contribute to address these issues. We are just waiting for a European agreement on research evaluation.

Coimbra Group’s frontrunner role, in shaping the COARA and in supporting initiatives like “More Than Our Rank” and the Barcelona Declaration on Open Research Information, can help us take these reflections forward in our respective institutions and national contexts and trigger the systemic changes we need.