Paying external mentors is the next wave of rankings gaming


A recent ad in The Chronicle of Higher Education caught our attention. Duy Tan University (DTU) in Danang, Vietnam, a comprehensive university of about 20,000 students, was soliciting external faculty to work collaboratively with DTU faculty in the social sciences and humanities. The ad stated that DTU would offer paid research and writing collaborations for external faculty to research and publish jointly with the developing faculty at DTU. Furthermore, the ad declared that stipends would be available for jointly published research appearing in Web of Science accredited journals. Published articles potentially could earn $1,000 (£773) per impact factor up to an impact factor of 5. Last, three-year collaborative contracts were being offered.

We get it. University rankings are all about staff publishing in high-impact English-language journals. But is hiring paid external faculty members to collaborate on scholarship the best tactic for DTU, or any developing university for that matter, to achieve a rankings boost?

The two biggest impediments to serious academic publishing by university faculty in many developing countries are poor English skills and an environment that is not conducive to building serious and sustained scholarly activity. Our experience in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) countries shows that there is no shortage of very bright and committed faculty, but for the most part they don’t have the English language skills and infrastructure to be successful.

With university ranking systems (including Times Higher Education’s World University Rankings) heavily skewed towards publishing in English-language journals, it goes without saying that developing universities should be placing English-language skills as a very high priority in both their hiring practices and their faculty development programmes.

While there are some effective mentoring programmes that link foreign faculty with anglophone faculty in other countries, they are typically limited to assisting with English grammar in journal articles. Importantly, those mentors are unpaid, and they do not participate as research collaborators or become co-authors.

Likewise, no amount of mentoring and collaborative publishing with paid foreign mentors can possibly elevate a foreign scholar’s English grammar skills to a level where they can operate independently over the long haul.

Second, as is common in the West and in elite Asian universities, there are best practices for ensuring that faculty develop as serious, impactful scholars early in their careers. Vital elements include reduced teaching loads in an academic’s early career, significant start-up money for research and liberal paid leave to nurture research activities.

Additionally, a crucial component is an internationalisation strategy that includes supporting faculty, students and staff to build their research programmes through collaborations with various institutions all over the world. Our experience is that few of these measures have been adopted in many developing universities.

It is our view, thus, that improving an institution’s performance in the rankings by paying foreigners to collaborate with faculty is short-sighted and does not properly prepare faculty to operate independently once the contract ends.

Also, there are potential problems with paid foreign collaborators especially if universities do not engage in due diligence in hiring. Some will have their own research agendas to pursue, and they might end up imposing their area of study or their particular research methods on the faculty. The end result is to prevent researchers from emerging systems from developing their own research interests and writing style.

A better way would be to give faculty the tools to develop their own research programmes. Motivated faculty exist in developing universities throughout the world; they just need to be given the agency to succeed. Meaningful collaborations are organic, not forced. Investing in faculty is the approach we favour.

Gaming world university rankings by paying external faculty members to collaborate on scholarship is a bad idea. Some might say that it is a quick way to improve faculty research and boost a university’s prestige. However, like most quick fixes, it will not get at the underlying cause of the problem. For that, developing universities need sustained investments in their greatest resource: the faculty.

Author Bios: Bruce Svare is in the department of psychology at the State University of New York Albany. Laurene Chua-Garcia is based at De La Salle University, Manila, Philippines, where she is a member of the department of psychology and vice-president for external relations and internationalisation. Anna Nguyen Loan is in the department of psychology at Hoa Sen University in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, where she specialises in clinical and counselling psychology.