Academic promotion and tenure: Where’s the connection to community?

Mark Lowey
November 23, 2022

NOTE: See also accompanying story: “Academic tenure should be replaced with better alternatives, professor says.”

The process of assessing academic promotion and tenure gives scant weight to community service and alternatives to peer-reviewed journals in sharing research with the public, according to several studies.

When it comes to achieving tenure, peer-reviewed research publications and teaching performance far outweigh community service, although more Canadian universities are recognizing the value of “community-engaged” research, academics told Research Money.

But community-engaged research takes a lot of time, which cuts into time for research and teaching, according to Dr. Jim Dunn, PhD, professor and chair of the Department of Health, Aging and Society at McMaster University and director of the McMaster Institute for Healthier Environments.

Without the protection of tenure, “if the sole measure of progress is academic output, people are effectively taking a big risk with their careers in doing community-engaged or civic impact kind of research,” Dunn said.

Young academics “are just stretched to the limits,” including pressure to publish in peer-reviewed journals, attract research funding and students, perform well in teaching, and provide service within the university, said Dr. Brian Veitch, professor of engineering and applied science and the Husky Energy Chair in Oil and Gas Research at Memorial University. “They basically have to cut out everything that they can possible cut out, so that they can secure tenure. [That often means] forget about the community service.”

Community-based research typically involves a partnership between the academic researcher and formal or informal organizations in society. The research is done through co-production, results are interpreted jointly among the partners, and the non-academic partners are meaningfully acknowledged.

That is different from community service, which usually consists of activities such as sitting on external advisory committees, helping affiliated professional societies, or working with the private sector or government.

“There’s definitely no room for someone to get promotion based on an excellent record of service,” Veitch said.

The criteria for tenure is normally an excellent record of research coupled with a serviceable or better record of teaching, or an excellent record of teaching attached to a serviceable or better record of research, he says.

For Dr. Molly Shoichet, PhD, University Professor and Michael E. Charles Chair in Chemical Engineering at the University of Toronto, community service is expected, and part of the consideration for tenure. “But the core of what we do in academia is advance knowledge in research and teaching, so it’s important to award tenure for one of these,” she said in an email to Research Money.

Dunn, Veitch and Shoichet — who each have tenure — all say tenure’s main purpose continues to be ensuring academic freedom and independence.

Dr. David Rosen, PhD an assistant professor of marine biology at the University of British Columbia, is on a grant-based tenure track (where he has to bring in external funding to pay his salary). He told Research Money tenure is necessary to protect professors conducting research and holding opinions that may not be mainstream from special interest groups. “That is still a danger.”

An often-heard argument against tenure is its expense, especially when no mandatory retirement is required of professors.

“If you have a senior faculty member who has tenure, they could be essentially after age 65 earning the money that could bring in two new junior faculty,” Rosen observed.

However, many universities are trying to find creative ways to accommodate such professors, while still freeing up some funds to hire new faculty, he says.

Research criteria “overemphasized” yet sometimes flawed

A 2021 study in the journal Facets looked at the criteria for promotion and tenure in faculties of medicine among the U15 Group of Canadian Research Universities. The authors found that many studies “have identified an overemphasis placed on research criteria as opposed to teaching and service criteria.”

“Among Canada’s leading research-intensive universities," the study stated, "faculties of medicine were found to assess professors on traditional aspects of research and rarely used non-traditional criteria. Some traditional criteria are widely discredited as problematic."

By way of example, the study noted that journal impact factor has been criticized for its inappropriate use in assessing scientists, since only a small set of papers determine this calculation. Similarly, many universities incentivize the quantity of publications rather than the reliability of findings, according to the study.

“This can inadvertently result in a focus on conducting research sacrificing accuracy and transparency,” the study concluded.

Veitch at Memorial University voiced his own suspicion as to why peer-reviewed journals get so much attention for determining research productivity as part of the promotion and tenure review: “it’s so damn easy to measure."

“I can go to Google Scholar and I can find out exactly what [academics] have written," he said. "I can see what their metrics are — these h-index scores. We can all see how each other has been cited.”

Teaching less valued than research, service much less so

In a 2019 study published by the peer-reviewed, open access journal eLife, researchers analyzed the review, promotion and tenure documents from 129 universities in the U.S. and Canada. They noted that “research continues to be the most highly valued aspect of faculty work. Teaching is typically valued less than research, despite teaching duties often representing more than half of the workload, and service activities come a distant third.”

Rosen explained that UBC requires all faculty to apply for tenure within seven years. While research, or scholarship, is still by far the most important criteria for tenure, he argued that teaching performance has grown in importance, with universities committing more time and resources to improving professors’ teaching skills.

“Service is taken into consideration," he said. "But it won’t trump those other criteria [research and teaching]."

The eLife findings highlighted university promotion and tenure documents that make significant mention of traditional research outputs and citation-based metrics, which "reward faculty work targeted to academics, and often disregard the public dimensions. Institutions that seek to embody their public mission could therefore work towards changing how faculty work is assessed and incentivized."

While many faculty have embraced community-engaged scholarship and related models, "there is still little evidence these are valued across the academy," noted the study. Meanwhile, the value of peer-reviewed publications “is often assessed using shortcuts such as the prestige of the publication venue, rather than on the quality and rigour of peer review of each individual item."

The shortcomings of traditional criteria for incentivizing and assessing scientists led to the creation in 2012 of the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA). The initiative involves funders, publishers, professional societies, institutions, and researchers.

DORA explicitly recommends organizations not use the journal impact factor to assess researchers, and instead highlight — especially for early-stage researchers — the importance of a paper’s specific scientific content.

More than 22,300 individuals and organizations have signed DORA to date. However, signatories from Canada include only a handful of universities: McGill University, Université de Montréal, Université du Québec, and University of Calgary.

Some Canadian universities are going to “push the envelope more” in changing how research and its impact on community are assessed, said McMaster University’s Dunn, citing community-engaged research initiatives and programs by Simon Fraser University and the University of Victoria.

“The challenge is that it can’t be just one institution that changes. They have to do it collaboratively with other institutions because academia is a global institution,” he says.

Benefits of community-connected research  

At the University of Toronto, Shoichet started Research2Reality, a national social media initiative that engages the public in research. The U of T has provided in-kind and cash support for the initiative and connections to government officials and additional funding, she says.

Shoichet also led the Science Leadership Program at her university for four years, with support from the university for intensive workshops and public engagement activities. She also is a volunteer board member at the MaRS tech incubator, and has helped graduates create startup companies.

“All of my other service enables me to participate in the community more broadly, which is meaningful to my life,” Shoichet says.

Dunn described McMaster University  office of community engagement, which assists researchers wanting to do community-engaged research. McMaster also has a formal statement of support for community-engaged research in its guidelines for faculty who organize and sit on promotion and tenure committees.

As an example of community-engaged research, Dunn partnered with municipal housing service managers in the Greater Toronto area, to study the differences between people who got housing compared with those who did not.

The community participation “allowed me to better understand and interpret the results, with insights from the partner on the results,” he said. “There are shared interests, value and benefits on both sides.”

He added that universities could encourage more community-engaged research by providing mentorship to young academics on how to manage such research and partnerships, and by giving academics some release from teaching and other duties so they have time to do this type of research.

Rosen, who works at UBC’s Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries and does a lot of applied research such as conservation and management, outlined his institute's support for engagement with the community. That includes his own "huge level of personal satisfaction” from visiting schools, teaching marine science every summer in the Arctic, and working closely with the interpreter team at the Vancouver Aquarium to help ground their activities in science.

“It’s really apparent that no matter how good the science is, it doesn’t have much value if it’s not reaching the people that it’s important to,” he concluded.

Veitch said the expectation at Memorial University is that faculty spend about 40 per cent of their time on research, 40 per cent on teaching, and 20 per cent doing service.

A highlight of his service to community is helping entrepreneurial students with tech startups, which he says “has profound impact on the students’ lives. It also is a way of liberating research from journals and regular channels. Get it into the hands of an entrepreneur who can turn it into a product.”

But he admitted to being baffled that such activity is not widely practised by academics in Canadian universities. “I don’t know if it’s because they don’t get credit for it on their promotion and tenure, or if they just don’t want to do it.”

Community engagement “is not given the weight that I think it deserves,” which is not good for universities or their faculty, he said. “The world is changing very, very quickly. I think it’s in our self-interest to engage more with the community in all sorts of different ways.”

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