Recognising Individual Contributions to Collaborative Research:Limitations of Proportional Publication Counts and Proposals for Alternatives

Recognising Individual Contributions to Collaborative Research:Limitations of Proportional Publication Counts and Proposals for Alternatives

The Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAf), funded by the National Research Foundation (NRF), has completed a peer-reviewed consensus study entitled ‘Recognising Individual Contributions to Collaborative Research: Limitations of Proportional Publication Counts and Proposals for Alternatives’. This report was formally launched on 11 March 2020 in Pretoria. 

Early in 2016, ASSAf agreed to initiate a multi-disciplinary study of the ways in which collaborative research could be appropriately recognised and rewarded in South Africa. The study was motivated by the increasing participation of individual academics and researchers in large national and international collaborations, and reports from these team members that their specific contribution was generally under-recognised by the existing performance appraisal systems within public research institutions. 

Given the important role of collaboration as a means of enhancing the local research capability and as catalysing innovation, ASSAf undertook to review South Africa’s systems for recognising individual contributions to high quality collaborative research, and hence to provide a basis for informed decision-making on the appropriate recognition for such individuals in the future. It was intended that the outcomes of the study would provide research institutions, HEIs, policymakers and funders with recommendations and guidelines for implementing policies that will promote, support and encourage excellence in research, particularly excellence in collaborative research, while at the same time providing the appropriate recognition for the participating individuals. 

The study has been undertaken in four separate phases. In the first phase, a literature review was undertaken in order to develop the necessary background material for the study including information on the extent and drivers of collaboration and co-authorship; present systems for the evaluation and recognition of contributions of individual authors in research papers; the consequences of such systems; and alternative systems, particularly for multi-author publications, which are presently being proposed or implemented.  

In the second phase, ASSAf has endeavoured to survey the perceptions of the research community within South Africa’s public research institutions towards the present system of proportional counting and publication units. The survey was undertaken as a joint project between ASSAf and SciSTIP, with the key question being whether the system can be considered as ‘fair and equitable’, or whether it is inequitable and therefore acts as a barrier to collaboration and coauthorship. 

In the third phase of the study, the panel interviewed the Deputy Vice Chancellors: Research (DVCs) of several public research universities in South Africa on the institutional response to, and impact of, the present system. In broad terms, this phase sought to clarify the perspectives of the DVCs on the general approach and impact of publication counts as a performance metric, the use of proportional counting, the allocation of rewards, the ASSAf-defined understanding of the problem statement (that proportional counting fails to adequately recognise participation in large collaborations) and possible recommendations for alternative systems.  

In the fourth and final phase of the study, the consequences of adopting five alternative models (algorithms) for the calculation of publication units have been assessed using simulations based on actual publication outputs at both system and institutional level for the years 1996 and 2016. 

The panel of experts for the study were: Prof Brenda Wingfield (UP), Panel Chairperson; Prof Quarraisha Abdool-Karim (UKZN); Prof Alan Christoffels (UWC); Prof Igle Gledhill (WITS); Prof Renée Kraan-Korteweg (UCT); Prof Francesca Little (UCT); Prof James Ogude (UP); Prof Francesco Petruccione (UKZN); Prof Christopher Vaughan (UCT); Prof Zeblon Vilakazi (WITS); Prof Patricia Whitelock (SAAO/UCT); and Dr Sahal Yacoob (UCT). 

The launch was attended by 51 delegates representing academia, government and industry. The report was accepted by Dr Dorsamy (Gansen) Pillay, Deputy Chief Executive Officer of the National Research Foundation and Dr Diane Parker, Deputy Director-General: University Policy and Development Support of the Department of Higher Education and Training.