Publication subsidies in South Africa – another view

Professor David Hedding from the distance-learning hub that is the University of South Africa, recently published a “World View” editorial in Nature decrying what he calls the “publication payouts” that are given by SOME South African universities to their staff, and suggests that

“…if South Africa hopes to drive innovation, it must stop publication payouts — they are the enemy of research quality”.

In explanation of how this all works, these payments derive from subsidies paid to those universities by SA’s Department of Higher Education and Training (DoHET). These subsidies are proportional to the number of peer-reviewed research publications published in DoHET-accredited journals, were set up as part of a Government Statute, and are intended to reward and to support research at those universities.

Note my emphasis on SOME universities: payments directly to individual academics / researchers is by no means a universal practice; the University of Cape Town, which is the leading research university on South Africa by several objective criteria, does not do this at all – as our Vice-Chancellor was quick to point out on Twitter recently.

Granted, the DoHET subsidy is a blunt instrument, as Hedding makes clear: it does not differentiate between minor local journals and prestigious international publications; it discriminates between local South African and foreign authors by not recognising contributions by the latter, which effectively lessens the “publication units” calculated as accruing to a given institution if many of its publications have international collaborators on them.

However, Hedding makes a number of claims in his piece that misstate the findings of a peer-reviewed publication from UCT, and that reiterate claims made by opponents of publication subsidy that are either simply wrong, or very sweeping in their scope. For example, he makes the argument that inter-institutional and international collaborations are discouraged because of potential loss of subsidy, and cites the findings of this UCT article in support:

“…an informal study of more than 800 articles published by health-science researchers at the University of Cape Town found a negative correlation between subsidies and both citation counts and field-weighted citation impact”.

This subtly misstates the conclusion of my colleagues’ article, which simply found that there was a positive correlation between number of international authors on a paper, with its citation count and field-weighted impact – and that the subsidy formula as it presently exists may penalize the high-citation articles that are most often the result of wide and desirable collaboration, without there being a link between subsidy and lower citation counts as he implies.

He also repeats as facts statements that seem to have undue credence among administrators – possibly because they were stated by senior SA academics in at least one article in the South African Journal of Science – such as

Some researchers salami-slice their research to spread it across more papers. Others target low-quality journals that are deemed less demanding…”.

This MAY happen for researchers who have no incentive or possibly no ability to publish high quality work in good journals, and who get personally rewarded by their institutions for such publications; however, given that this would negatively impact their promotion prospects, it is not a good long-term strategy for anyone. It is also very easy for the institutions that reward academics personally from the subsidy to discourage this strategy for self-enrichment at the cost of scientific quality. All  they have to do is apply some metrics based on the relative international standing of the journals, or the field-weighted article citation impacts, and sub-standard publications will rapidly lose their appeal. Thus, the immediate support of our own VC for Hedding’s viewpoint may have been premature, given the simplistic nature of his straw man.

Hedding goes on to suggest that publication subsidies be used to support postgraduate student fellowships, and to extend and develop in-depth researcher-evaluation programmes.

While support of postgrads is always a good idea – and our institutions probably do not do nearly enough in this regard – it is meaningless without support of the researchers who provide their research projects, who are earning the universities money from publications they may well have had to pay page charges for, on work that they had to scrape for money to do in the first place. Moreover, supporting a postgrad student working with someone who doesn’t have the money to support their project is completely pointless.

As for researcher evaluation, this is something that is already done at just about any research-intensive institution I can think of as well as by the National Research Foundation – so embellishing this infrastructure does not seem to be very good use of research publication subsidy. Moreover, Hedding’s claim that the NRF researcher rating

“…programme has done much to boost productivity and, more importantly, quality in South African research

is not borne out by their funding schemes, which go mainly to ring-fenced initiatives such as the SA Research Chairs Initiative and National Centres, then competitive funding calls, rather than to rated researchers. Thus, rating is a paper reward for existing excellence rather than an incentive to achieve excellence, and the level of funding to recognised researchers was always minor compared to a competitive grant – and, as he notes, now is not given at all.

What I disagree with above all, though, is Hedding’s statement that

“…if South Africa hopes to drive innovation, it must stop publication payouts”.

This negates the very purpose of research publication subsidies, which were explicitly intended by the SA Government to support research. It is not the subsidies that are the problem; rather, it is how they are used by the recipient institutions.

For example, my institution – UCT – produced ~1700  “publication units” in 2016 and will receive around R122 000/unit as publication subsidy for a total of  R207 million in 2019. This money conveniently “loses its memory” – a direct quote from a senior finance officer – after entering the University’s financial system, and is thereafter not directly used for supporting research. For example, I have calculated that just 10% of this money would be sufficient to support Open Access publication costs – for the sake of argument, R12 000/article – for ALL of UCT’s peer-reviewed publications in recent years, given an output of ~1700 publication units/yr. The present level of support by UCT for OA / article costs is nothing like that; consequently, UCT authors see little incentive to publish OA despite a stated position of support for such mode of publication by the University, and by funding bodies.

Something Hedding does not mention at all, however, is that there is also considerable subsidy given to SA universities by DoHET for graduated Masters and PhD students. One graduated PhD student is worth ~R360 000, for example, and one MSc-by-dissertation around R120 000 to UCT in any given year (figures for 2019). I am not aware of any institution that rewards academics for income derived from their students graduating; however, the subsidy formula for an institution takes in publication count AND student graduations as part of an integrated package of support – so reward for one should surely mean reward for the other too?

Accordingly, application of a policy whereby researchers who publish work of a given quality are rewarded in their research funds with a significant fraction of the subsidy accruing to the University from that publication, as well as a fraction of the income derived from their students graduating, would go a long way to fulfilling the intention of the subsidy. It would also offset some of the expenses incurred by researchers, including some of their running costs, and in particular financial support of postgrads and publication costs.

As an example, it costs my group >R150 000 per annum to fund the running costs of a single postgrad student project, and probably another R50 000 – R100 000 to support them personally in addition to whatever (generally insufficient) bursary they may receive. As far as the Government subsidy to the University of R360 000 per graduated PhD student and R120 000 per MSc graduate is concerned, given ~4 yrs per PhD project each PhD student brings in R90 000/yr, and a MSc student R63 000/yr per 2-yr project. One publication unit per year – which is a reasonable output per senior PhD student in my group – also brings in R120 000; thus, a PhD student might earn the University R210 000 per annum WITHOUT considering fees, which are ~R35 000/yr. This is roughly the same as the annual cost of a single PhD project to the senior researcher paying for it – and could thus completely fund a postgrad student for both subsistence and research costs, if the subsidies were used to directly defray research costs.

As it is, as group leaders in a Research Unit that produces an average of 10 publications units/yr, I and my two colleagues TOGETHER receive ~R36 000 total/yr from the so-called Faculty Block Grant fund – against publication subsidy income of ~R1 million, and expenditure on publications of up to R90 000/yr that are not covered by UCT OA/APC refunds. Moreover, the University receives PhD / MSc student subsidy for people in my group of 2xPhD + 6xMSc = R560 000. Thus, we generate ~R1.6 million/yr for our University in research-related activities, against a research-reward income from the University of ~R36 000 – and note that this is NOT counting any overheads or other charges paid by us to the institution from research grants, which could be substantial, or patent or licence income from our IP to UCT.

Therefore, while Hedding’s points may be valid when considering ONLY those institutions that pay researchers DIRECTLY for publications in DoHET-recognised journals, they are not valid for research-intensive Universities that do not do this, or who use a proportional-return system that goes into a researcher’s University-administrated funds. It is true that predatory journals are attracting South African authors, and money is being siphoned off from subsidies for these articles – however, DoHET and others are aware of this, and steps are being taken to counter the tendency. He has also completely missed mentioning student subsidies, which are also a substantial income to universities. Consequently, I would like to make the point that publication and postgraduate student subsidies are an extremely valuable, but misused resource – and that universities need to learn to use them for the purpose for which they were intended, rather than having Government and DoHET rethink the concept of the subsidies.











About Ed Rybicki

Ed is a 60-ish virologist and biotechnologist, formerly a Zambian and presently a South African. He is into family, virology, biotechnology, science in general, science fiction in particular, photography, red wine, wearing loud shirts, 70s rock, blues and smooth jazz...and telling stories. Sometimes, interesting ones. And writing for his own amusement.
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