How to encourage researchers to publish more

8 September 2014

Recently, I had a conversation about incentives for researchers to publish. You’d be forgiven for finding this challenge rather odd but, in fact, it is something that several think tanks have to deal with.

First of all, many researchers, often some of the most in-demand experts, spend most of their time working as research consultants. This leaves little time for them to focus on more academic or policy publications. One project follows the other with little time in between (see here for some ideas on how to make time). Second, many think tanks are still staffed with and led by an ‘older’ generation of researchers who already enjoy an excellent reputation and are naturally less concerned about publishing than that may be about other things: teaching, public engagements, etc. In some cases, too, there is not so much of a sense of urgency in what researchers do. They are not yet challenged by younger generations or other sectors in the policy space. Publication (or research production, more generally) efforts are reserved, maybe, for books, but certainly not for shorter papers or briefs. Finally, especially academic publishing, and particularly publication in influential journals (something many think tanks would like to see more of), can be highly time-consuming. And this is something that few researchers have time for. And who could blame them? the odds are staked against them. This is worth spelling out:

Considering the 20-year span (1985 to 2004) and the top-five economics journals together the published articles comprised:

39 papers on India,

65 papers on China,

34 papers on all of Sub-Saharan Africa; and

2,383 papers on the US.

Of course, underlying many of these is the issue of funding. Project funding keeps many researchers and think tanks in a hand-to-mouth state that prevents them from making the investments they need to change this state of affairs. Sometimes, however, the change is more psychological than anything else; the funds are there, but researchers and their organisations find it hard to change the way they work.

What could a think tank do to address a publications recession ?

The choice of actions will depend on the think tanks’ own particular circumstances. But some of the following ideas might help to put together the most appropriate plan:

  • Publications fund: Obviously, money plays a big role. Few think tanks have significant reserves but those who have them probably do not have clear plans about how to use them. One very useful investment is to fund researchers to transform their consultancy work into a publication for the think tank. This may work best for working papers, policy briefs, or opinion pieces than for journal articles, but there is no harm in trying. However, providing these extra funds to all researchers is likely to dilute their effect. Instead, think tanks should choose who to support and what issues to encourage more publishing on. This can be done at the organisation or at the programme/department level.
  • Communications support: Radically new forms of publication (and communications) are often opposed by researchers. Demands for ‘more’ (of anything) are also likely to be opposed. This is understandable. So instead of forcing everyone to change overnight, think tanks can focus on those early adopters who are keen to try them out. One way of encouraging researchers to spend more time publishing is to reward those who do with as much support as is possible. Get them on the news, organise events for them, take them to meetings with the board, give them first dips on new funding opportunities, etc. Slowly, as others notice the benefits that an increase in publications give their colleagues, they will probably want to give it a go, too.
  • Positive discrimination: This may be a bit ‘ageist’ but think tanks need to invest more in their younger researchers. These should not be organisations where people can expect to retire after decades of uninterrupted work. They should be stepping-stones for younger researchers and policy entrepreneurs eager to make a name for their themselves, develop innovative ideas, and pursue them in the public space. Younger researchers face lower opportunity costs than their older peers. It might be easier and cheaper to fund them to spend more of their time on publishing.
  • Hire or reward alternative role-models: A way of compensating for this possible ‘ageism’ could be to hire new or reward existing senior researchers who demonstrate a commitment towards more prolific publishing and communications, more generally. Young researchers try to copy what the most respected senior researchers do. This relationship (often informal and unreciprocated) perpetuates the status quo. But if there is an experienced researcher who bucks the trend and that younger researchers are encouraged to follow the think tank might be able to change things around.
  • Host foreign researchers: I’ve found that think tanks (and research centres) in developing countries are, on average, a lot more risk averse when it comes to publishing than their peers in the US or the UK. There is an element of perfectionism involved but also the sense that one’s work needs to be extra good to merit publication. I remember a meeting with a researcher in Zambia who had drafted a policy brief and asked for my advice. He wasn’t sure it was ready for publication yet; in my eyes, however, it was as good as or better than anything I’d seen in the UK. The paper had been ready a long time ago. What this think tank needed wasn’t money, instead it needed someone to tell its researchers, and give them the confidence, to publish. Hosting, even if for a few weeks or months, researchers from think tanks in the US or the UK (or countries like Chile or Argentina were think tank communities are rather developed), would provide some developing country researchers with the confidence they need to publish more and faster.
  • Condition certain services to publishing: There was never an event at ODI which did not have new working papers, policy briefs, and other publications ready to be shared. I’ve been in Peru for a bit over a year now and I’ve been rather surprised about the absence of new publications at the events I’ve attended. Sure there are always books on sale and some brochures, but not much to take home (for free). A few times, the events have been held before the studies had been finished. I think that for the most part, events, are held by default. Either because researchers think that they have to be organised or because they have in included in the project’s log-frame, few have been thought through properly. They are hardly ever part of broader series or efforts to promote a particular initiative or theme, for instance. Better event planning should include the production of key publications and materials: “you want us to organise your event, have that paper ready?” is something think tanks should tell their researchers.
  • Make the real costs of research and communication visible: Few think tanks know exactly how much any of the things they do actually cost. How many know, for instance, how much it cost them, on average, to put together a literature review? How much does it cost to write a working paper? The fact is that without this information there is little they can do besides offer words of encouragement. By making these costs visible, however, they can allocate resources more effectively, they can establish standards, invest in improvements, etc. One thing that they will notice is that they may be spending more time publishing a single book than they would be publishing a series of working papers and many other accompanying materials.
  • Pay for publications: Quite clearly, think tanks should include publications as part of the targets for their researchers. Bringing money, influencing, and publications should be present in their performance objectives. A think tanker needs all: raising funds is important but these have to translate into research; influencing is crucial, but in a think tank this has to be informed by ongoing and published (and publicly available) research; and a prolific publications record is a great way to influence and support fundraising efforts.
  • Don’t pay if there are no publications: Some think tanks have a business model that involves paying a core salary to their staff plus a variable one on top that depends on how many funds they raise. Others only pay salaries plus a small annual bonus. Other just salaries. In all cases, however, the assumption is made that researchers will publish using their salaries: We pay, then you publish. But some organisations could attempt to turn things around: you’ll get paid if you publish. This is not dissimilar to ‘payment by results’ which is being tested in many sectors. This, of course, requires that the think tank introduces a staff performance system.
  • Cut unnecessary outputs: Research projects do not have to always aim for a research report that is then reworked into other forms of publications. Researchers can aim for working papers, journal articles, briefs, etc. right from the start. Think tanks need to pay more attention at how the design their research projects to make sure that time is not wasted on outputs that will never see the light of day.
  •  Publish intermediary outputs: For a long time (and probably still is) the most popular publications on the ODI website were literature reviews published as working papers. These reviews were intermediary outputs; part of a research project that became a working paper on its own. One paper can be: one paper, plus one literature review, plus now annotated bibliography, plus a policy brief (the recommendations section), plus a methodological note (something few do), etc.
  • Ask for bodies of work not isolated studies: When researchers enjoy a certain degree of independence vis a vis the think tank, they may be tempted to use the little time they have to produce papers on issues that interest them at the time. These output may count in their total tally of publications but are likely to be unrelated to any other papers they have published: last year it could have been on labour costs, this year on trade, and next on labour costs again. While allowing researchers to take the initiative, managers could encourage them to pursue cohesive research agendas in view of developing a body of knowledge than can support multiple publications in the future. Publishing for the sake of publishing is not useful either.
  • Hire prolific publishers: This demands an even greater reform to the manner in which think tanks manage their human resources. To begin with, they will have to begin hiring as professionals (with application forms, interviews, reviews of work samples, etc). No more hiring of family and friends, former interns, or regular consultants. Positions, especially at entry levels, need to be filled competitively and a key criteria for all appointments has to be the candidates’ capacity and willingness to publish.
  • Review your contractual arrangements: Even if researchers want to publish they are often unable to because their funders control the data they gathered and the outputs of their work. This is particularly common for think tanks that undertake consultancies for the government or for the private sector. Unless the organisations take a series look at the contracts they sign, their researchers are likely to find themselves unable to do anything about publishing more. To begin with, think tanks should make sure that they have access to any data generated or gathered, they should ensure that all consultancies fund (or allow for) a working paper (at least) based on the study or protect, they could also be creative with the budget to make sure they include a small ‘extra’ to allow for time for publication (but this will demand that the think tank know how much this costs!), etc.
  • Involve communications: Communications teams can fulfil many roles. The idea that they are only useful to transform finished reports into press releases, fancy publications, or videos is terribly limited. A good communications officer can work with the researchers to prepare (or help prepare) various outputs along the way. By the time the final report is ready, a draft working paper could be ready too. They can also help the researchers design their research projects to ensure they will have greater chances of being accepted by journals.
  • Use associates and piggy-back on their publications: Think tanks rarely publish other people’s work. I think this is a mistake. If other think tanks are supporting your arguments, why not use them? For think tanks that employ associates, this should offer an opportunity: why not publish the work their associates publish elsewhere? Associates or non-resident fellows may be based in universities or think tanks with greater resources to dedicate to academic publications. Think tanks can re-publish them (acknowledging, obviously,  the original publisher) and ‘add’ them to their portfolios. They can also take advantage of that relationship by encouraging their associates to undertake work in their countries or in collaboration with staff member to share their publications authorship. Or you may offer them a research grant to conduct new research on your behalf once a year.
  • Organise events with other organisations and re-publish publications authored by the speakers: This is another way of taking advantage of partnerships. Event pages are a perfect place to showcase all the speakers’ relevant work. This can also help to channel new publications through your site. This has to be reciprocal, of course.

There are probably many more. In the end, what one is really looking for is a change in the organisational culture. A realisation that, for whatever reason, researchers in a think tank (or in a research centre in a university) cannot behave as tenured professors -certainly not in developing countries where lavish public funding for that kind of (necessary) scholarship simply does not exit). Think tanks must be dynamic and productive organisations. Researchers much compete (in good nature) between them and between their peers in other think tanks.

The bottom line

Which take sus back to the bottom line: who will pay for all this? And, will it work?

Answering the second question first, I’d be cautious to promise immediate results. Obviously the best way to publish more right away would be to make sure that current research staff drop whatever they are doing (or not doing) and start to publish more. This is not going to happen, clearly. So new things need to be attempted. All the suggestions above will take some time, some more than others, but they should lead to a new and sustainable publication (and production, more generally) capacity.

There is a clear underlying message in all these recommendations: you need a new mindset, either from within or outside the organisation .

In terms of the costs, the recommendations are not as expensive as they sound. But they may not be popular, but they are certainly not expensive:

  • Communication teams: There is a clear implication that the communications capacity of the think tank needs to grow. But this growth should not go so far as to leave researchers behind. Communications teams should grow along with researchers’ engagement with them; they should, maybe, be a few steps ahead, but not more. Let me say this very clearly: 1 or 2 communicators for 50 researchers is not OK. This is probably more of a water opportunity than anything else. 3 or 4 is more appropriate. But if we realise that more visibility can lead to more funds, this should be seen as a rather safe investment. Now, for many think tanks this should not be a problem. In fact, they are likely to have more communication staff than they think. many think tanks run projects that have dedicated or part-time communications staff. All they need to do is bring all these resources together under the coordination of a senior communications leader.
  • Communication events: These do not cost much. Events like these I organised in Peru did not cost more than USD25 each. The event on think tank audiences had over 100 participants -even though it dealt with a topic that few people care much about. Producing the site was not hard. All together, the organisation took a couple of days work over a two month period. A professional communicator could do this in his/her sleep.
  • New staff: There is an implicit suggestion that new researchers, with the right skills, need to be recruited. This could be in addition of (which would certainly involve an additional cost) or part of the think tank’s existing recruitment plans. The idea is that the think tanks start to hire by paying more attention to their candidates’ future publications records.
  • Associates: Associates cost a lot less than full-time staff and can be far more profitable (in more than one way). An associate’s costs may include: hot-desking office facilities, an email account, company cards, travel insurance, access to an intranet, and research and travel funds, among other costs. None of these are significant and could very easily be covered by work that these associated may help the think tank to win.
  • New HR systems: New HR systems, including staff performance assessments and training programmes, could involve new costs for the organisation. But these are essential for their effective functioning. If they cannot afford them then they should be prioritising them in their relationship with their funders. this blog has argued that Governance and Management have been left out of the discussions between funders and think tanks for too long; well, HR is a central aspect of this discussion that has to be had, sooner rather than later.
  • New financial systems: Before we decide that these investments are too expensive to consider, think tanks must first calculate how they are spending their funds. Time sheets, forecasting tools and other tools need to be in place to support these investments.

These are all manageable investments for think tanks. Publication (in various forms) is crucial for a think tank. Without them they are unlikely to raise their visibility and that of their ideas. Without them, they will find it hard to attract new generations of researchers and other leaders. They will struggle to advance their ideas, too, if they do not put them down on paper for others to engage with them.