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Regular version of the site

A Paucity of Publishing

Why university professors find it difficult to do very much research


There are usually three main parts to working at a university: teaching, research, and administrative tasks. However, professors at Russian universities are still mostly occupied with the demands of a very heavy teaching load. As HSE International Laboratory for Institutional Analysis of Economic Reforms Senior Researcher Ilya Prakhov discovered, even at leading universities with a focus on science, professors spend 2.5 times more time on classroom work than on research. Given this situation, is it possible to advance research at universities?

Higher Service

‘I teach until evening four days a week and have only one day for scientific research,’ said Natalia P., a professor at one of Moscow’s national research universities. ‘How much science can I do like that? Obviously, not as much as I would like.’ Another instructor, Ekaterina S., remarked, ‘It takes more time to do worthwhile research and get published in good journals. But we have lectures, seminars, colloquia, term papers and thesis research for which you can’t take a strictly formal approach. This is a federal university, after all.’

The creation of federal universities in 2006 and national research universities in 2008 — that hold special status — has increased the prestige of the academic profession and was the first step in stimulating research in universities. The 5–100 Project (2012-2020) to make leading Russian universities more competitive in the global academic market has become another powerful driver of university-based science.

‘Research is important, but teaching should not suffer as a result,’ said Ekaterina S. ‘That is, we have to literally carve out time for scientific work and publishing.’ When asked if she manages to do this, Ekaterina replied, ‘With international journals, it’s good if you can publish two articles a year. It’s better with Russian journals where three articles a year is possible.’ When asked if she ever had to pay to have articles published, she answered, ‘Yes, a couple of times, when the results had to be published as quickly as possible to submit reports about my work. We have performance-based contracts; everything is strict,’ she said.

Since 2012, numerous universities have been switching to performance-based contracts, primarily to stimulate research and become more actively involved in the global academic market. In this system, a teacher’s salary depends on indicators for teaching, research and administrative activities. The most important criterion is publication activity — the number of articles and reviews published in scientific journals.

‘Research often gets done at the expense of free time, weekends, holidays and family time,’ said Alexei T., who teaches at a university that was part of the 5–100 programme. According to him, ‘It is commendable if you are ready to make such sacrifices,’ but it would be unrealistic to expect teachers to do so on a permanent basis. ‘The teaching staff is really overloaded,’ he said. Oleg S., who teaches at a school in the region, said, ‘I have some ideas and would like to do research, but there is also just physical fatigue that limits my plans.’

All of those with whom we spoke are ready for continued training and to cooperate with research teams from other universities. ‘I am part of an international group [of researchers],’ said Yury M., a professor. ‘This is the best motivation for me, a real upgrade. The journals we publish in are in the first quartile; they are in Scopus and other major databases.’

Journals in the first quartile (Q1 segment) have the highest impact factor (a numerical indicator of how often the journal is cited) and are considered the most authoritative. Q4 journals represent the lowest quartile and are cited the least.

‘With such publications (Q1), our results get much more notice in global science,’ added Yury M. ‘Plus, there is also a cash bonus. They give bonuses for articles in good journals.’ So, he said, you have ‘to be a universal soldier: combine teaching, research and bureaucratic work’.

A Renaissance of Research

In Soviet times, they mainly taught at universities, while research was carried out by the institutes of the Academy of Sciences. But after the collapse of the Soviet Union, it was difficult for universities to engage in science: a drop in income and the profession’s prestige forced professors to leave universities, emigrate (causing ‘brain drain’) or earn extra money at non-state universities. As a result, universities experienced a decline in overall productivity because they were forced to hire less productive teachers.

As mentioned above, universities with special status appeared in the second half of the 2000s and the 5–100 project ran from 2012 until 2020. ‘It certainly helped,’ noted Yury M., ‘research was rejuvenated. Thanks to the additional resources, there was a clear upgrade in everything: project, equipment and international contacts.’ As Oleg S. said, ‘I have some friends who emigrated during the 2000s and who started thinking about coming back because they saw some pretty good opportunities.’ Natalia P. recalled, ‘My colleague from Germany said, “It seems like research is having a renaissance over there”.’ She said that the number of publications ‘by the department had risen considerably, and most of them are good.’

However, there was also a downside to the project in that many articles appeared in low-quality publications. ‘Some people are masters of scientific graphomania. They publish the very same article in different journals by simply shifting the emphasis a little and rearranging the paragraphs to make it seem like they’ve made a new “discovery”,’ said Natalia P.

Such cases are explained in part by the fact that professors must do research on top of an already heavy teaching load. As a result, articles appear in predatory journals that require payment or that print tailor-made articles. Such strategies ‘not only won’t help improve the position of Russian science in the international arena,’ said Ilya Prakhov, ‘but on the contrary, will make it more vulnerable.’

Ilya Prakhov studies all these questions — the balance between teaching and research, patterns of professors’ scientific and publication activity, cooperation with other scientific teams and career plans. Based on data from Monitoring the Economics of Education, a 2020 HSE survey of 14,000 educators from every federal district, he analysed the differences in professors’ academic and publishing strategies according to the university’s research focus.

‘Special’ and ‘Ordinary’ Universities

The most representative groups of educators were from Moscow (2,800 individuals), the Volga Federal District (2,522), the Central Federal District, excluding Moscow (1,776), the Northwest Federal District (1,710), etc.

Of these:

19% are employees of leading universities — national research universities (NRUs) and federal universities included in the 5–100 project.

11% are employees of flagship universities — major educational centres created by combining several regional universities that specialise in training qualified personnel for local labour markets.

70% represent all other universities.

Each of the above three categories is different. For example, some of the leading universities are strong in research and many have introduced effective work contracts with clearly defined obligations regarding scientific work. In contrast, flagship universities tend to have fewer requirements for research.

Only employees with teaching responsibilities participated in the survey. Approximately three-fourths were full-time employees (associate professors, professors, senior lecturers, etc.). Some were also part-time guest staff who held full-time jobs outside the university (18%) and in-house staff — researchers who also did some teaching (6%).

Most were associate professors (43%), followed by part-time educators (18%) and senior lecturers (13%). The share of women varies from 54% in leading universities to 65% at all others. Respondents averaged 47 years of age.

University Employment

The main question is: Which type of work predominates — teaching, research or administration?

The great majority of respondents (86%) have not only a classroom workload, but must also prepare for classes, work individually with students and check homework — that is, they also have sizable workload in addition to actual teaching. More than one-third of respondents (35%) teach at not only their own university, but also at others, and 8% give private lessons. In other words, teaching remains the key activity.

Almost two-thirds (65%) of teachers do research. Some respondents (11%) also engaged in science in other educational organisations or do expert and consulting work (also 11%). One-fourth (26%) of respondents must also do administrative work.

Respondents spend most of their time on teaching, an average of 21 hours per week on university classes and up to 15 hours per week on extracurricular work. They can also spend up to 11 hours per week teaching at other universities and 8 hours per week on private lessons.

For comparison, university educators spend an average of 11.5 hours per week on scientific work and 12 hours on expert activities. ‘Across the sample, educators spent an average of 3.31 times more time on teaching than on research’, Prakhov said.

Lecturers at the leading universities spend more time on research every week (up to 12.5 hours) than those at other universities and have the smallest classroom workload — approximately 18 hours. But even at leading universities with an emphasis on research, educators spend 2.75 times more time on teaching than on science. For flagship and other universities, the difference is even greater — 3.58 and 3.41 times more.

In fact, administrative work also takes more time than science — an average of about 17 hours per week across the sample. ‘Thus, there is no healthy balance between teaching, research and administrative activities that would contribute to teachers being more involved in academic research,’ the author of the article commented. This can also have a negative effect on research productivity.

Research Patterns

When asked which types of scientific work they had been engaged in during the previous three years, respondents primarily listed the preparation of scientific articles and monographs, ongoing work in the university’s science department, individual and collective projects funded by grants, inventions and innovations and analytics.

It turned out that producing scientific articles and monographs was the most common form of research. Approximately two-thirds (67%) of respondents at all types of universities worked on publications in 2017-2019.

In terms of research, the largest group (39%) of the respondents’ research is focused on individual or collective projects at the host organisation. This is followed by collective projects carried out with grants from scientific foundations (18%). This response was highest (27%) for educators at leading universities and lowest (16%) at the various other universities. The average at flagship universities is 23%.

‘Firstly, lecturers at leading universities have more opportunities to work on such projects,’ explained Ilya Prakhov. ‘For example, they have more time for research. Secondly, their activity might be based on the type of contract that research universities conclude. Thirdly, applications submitted by professors at leading universities are more likely to receive support from outside scientific foundations and organisations because their work is of higher quality.’

Thirteen percent of respondents stated that they do ongoing work in a scientific department of their university. As for other scientific projects (not funded by grants), almost 10% of respondents carried out work at the orders of their department and 8% did research at other educational organisations. Another 8% worked on inventions and design developments and only 15% of respondents did no scientific work at all during this period.

Presentations and Reports

At leading universities, educators produced an average of 3.2 scientific reports over the previous three years, and 2.7 at flagship and other universities. Teachers at all types of universities submitted almost the same number of patent applications or invention registrations (2.2) and participated in roughly the same number of professional competitions (2.3 per employee).

One way to present research results is to participate in scientific conferences. In 2017-2019, employees of universities without special status more often made presentations at Russian events (62% of the total teaching staff of these universities), while lecturers from leading universities spoke more often at international conferences, including those held in Russia (53%) and overseas (16%). This indicator is almost twice as high as at other universities.

On the one hand, Prakhov said, the international audience has a higher demand for reports by employees of Russia’s leading universities. On the other hand, the proportion of such employees is very low even in the best universities, and more than one-quarter of those surveyed (regardless of the type of university) did not speak at all at conferences and symposiums in 2017-2019. At the same time, lecturers at the leading universities use foreign languages more, and this has a positive effect on publications.

Publication Activity

As a rule, different types of universities follow different strategies for presenting scientific results. A total of 40% of employees of leading universities have more articles in Russian and international journals that are part of the Web of Science (WoS) or Scopus citation systems. Among all other universities, however, that figure stands at 26%. More than 60% of their teachers choose to publish in domestic journals that are not indexed in international databases.

Because universities are ranked primarily according to how many publications they have in indexed international journals, it follows that ‘the teachers of leading universities have the most effective publication strategy given the transition to a knowledge-based economy,’ Ilya Prakhov explained.

University educators on the whole published regularly in 2017-2019. Only about 8% of respondents had not published any articles. Taken together, 28% of respondents authored scientific monographs or chapters of larger works that were published in Russia and 4% overall — 5.1% in leading universities — published monographs abroad. There is also a broad category of ‘other publications’ that includes preprints, informational materials and journalistic articles. More than half of the respondents reported publishing such materials, although only 44% of those at leading universities did so.

Over the three-year period studied, lecturers at leading universities averaged 4.3 scientific articles published in indexed foreign journals, the highest figure of those surveyed. For flagship and other universities, that figure stands at 3.7 and 3.3 respectively. Employees of leading and other universities published an average of 3.1 articles in Russian indexed journals, and those in flagship universities an average of 2.8.

Pay-to-print Articles

Many aspects of performance-based contracts can lead to unintended consequences. For example, employees might neglect other work and focus on the objectively identifiable indicators of the contract (number of articles published, presentation delivered and conferences attended) on which their salary depends. Such situations can arise when performance indicators are not clearly defined. This can lead to people paying middleman organisations to publish low-quality works in specially created journals.

‘Unfortunately, this practice is very common,’ said Ilya Prakhov. ‘Such behaviour is partly caused by the fact that, in addition to requiring a high teaching load, performance-based contracts often require teachers to meet publication quotas.’ Faced with insufficient time for research, teachers are forced to ‘choose particular publishing strategies’.

As a rule, ‘honest’ publications are those that do not require additional payments. However, a number of journals charge an official standard fee for reviewing an article or for placing it in the public domain. Such articles go through several stages of anonymous peer review and are often polished before publication.

To gauge the number of ‘for-pay’ and ‘dishonest’ publications, respondents were asked whether they had ever had to transfer payment for articles. Approximately 57% said they had been charged a fee to publish in Russian journals in recent years. This figure is lower for educators at leading universities (45%) and higher among the rest (60%).

Of those surveyed, 36% paid to have articles published in international journals, and this represents 74% of those who published in such journals at all in 2017-2019. Within that subgroup, teachers at the leading universities were least likely to pay for such publications (64%), while their colleagues at flagship universities were the most likely to do so (80%).

Scientific Collaboration

The survey also found that three-fourths (75%) of respondents overall had not collaborated with top Russian universities, although 32% of those at leading universities had. Given that these universities generally offer more opportunities of this type, the actual share of employees collaborating in this way might be higher. Fewer than one-fourth of the educators at other universities had such collaboration.

Such collaboration often consists of jointly authoring scientific papers with employees of leading universities (34%). Eleven percent of respondents had done such collaborative work on grant projects and 16% at leading universities had such experience. Approximately 5% prepared their dissertations under the guidance of staff from top universities.

A simple lack of time is probably the main reason teachers did not collaborate more frequently with leading universities.

In this connection, the survey included a question about the motivation for scientific cooperation and found that most respondents were willing to engage in it. The largest group of respondents (55%) said they preferred short-term internships or continuing education at a leading university; 27% favoured co-authoring papers with personnel at leading Russian universities; 17% were interested in long-term internships; and 16% wanted to do work in a joint science lab. Thus, when the right conditions are in place, scientific collaborations with leading universities are very possible.

Attitudes towards Scientific Work

Another important question concerns the types of academic activities that educators prefer. More than one-half of all respondents said they prefer teaching, although only two-thirds of teachers at leading universities gave this answer as compared to three-fourths at other universities.

Respondents were also asked to evaluate statements about the effect that high demands for scientific productivity, usefulness and applied value of results have on the quality of teaching and scientific work. They assigned scores between 1 and 5, with 1 meaning they completely disagree with the statement and 5 meaning they are in complete agreement. The average scores assigned to all statements clustered near 3.5. Thus, according to Ilya Prakhov, the majority of respondents tend to agree that the high requirements for scientific productivity adversely affect the quality of teaching.

Professional Path

As for career plans, it turned out that most respondents see themselves as teachers. As many as 40% are hoping to advance from teacher to associate professor to full professor at their universities, and almost 5% hope to transfer to a teaching job at another university.

The researcher noted some conservative thinking among respondents, with more than one-third (35%) reporting that they would stay in the same job, implying that they saw no possibility for career growth.

Respondents found careers in science less attractive. Only 5% of respondents overall hope to advance from research associate to laboratory head to institute director, although in the leading institutes, this figure stands at 8%. Nine percent of those surveyed want to advance in administrative careers from department head to dean to vice rector.

Different Strategies with a Common Thread

Thus, teaching is still the predominant activity in universities. Even at leading universities with a science emphasis, educators spend 2.5 times more time on classroom work than on research. ‘Such a ratio calls into question the possibility of creating favourable conditions for scientific work at universities,’ noted Ilya Prakhov.

The patterns of teachers’ publishing activity differ depending on the status of their respective institutions of higher learning. Teachers at leading universities are more likely to publish in international scientific journals indexed in the WoS or Scopus. Their colleagues at educational institutions with a different status are more often published in Russian journals that are not included in the world’s citation systems. Thus, research conducted at leading universities contributes more to the competitiveness of the Russian academic sector on the world stage.

Although many educators are willing to collaborate with leading universities, their heavy teaching load leaves them too little time to do so. As it turns out, however, teaching is what they like doing most anyway.

Author: Olga Sobolevskaya, March 09, 2022