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Can the value of an university faculty’s academic research be easily quantified by budget formulas and scholarly citation counts? Gary A. Olson argues that it cannot in his essay “How Not to Measure Faculty Productivity.”

Olson’s essay appeared in the December 2011 issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education. At the time, Olson was the former provost of Idaho State University; he is now the president of Daemen College in Amherst, New York.

Olson wrote in response to a movement among some academic and political leaders to increase faculty teaching loads at the expense of research. He specifically references a study called “Literary Research: Cost and Impact,” which suggested that the research contributions of literary faculty were of “little consequence” to universities.  Olson calls this study, and other cultural pressure to achieve financial efficiency by increasing the teaching loads of tenured faculty, “deeply flawed.”

“The assumption underlying… several of the recent discussions of faculty productivity is that the job of university professor is equivalent to the job of teacher,” Olson writes. “But that is simply not the case at a university.”

Olson argues that at a well managed research institution, lecturers, instructors and graduate assistants work to carry some of the teaching burden so that faculty members can dedicate more time to research, which is widely considered a key criterion for tenure and promotion evaluations. He also says that institutions should continually review their course curricula and cull underperforming and out-of-date courses from their catalogs, thus reducing faculty teaching loads.

The essay goes on to say that it is difficult to quantify the academic impact that a professor’s research has made simply by counting the times cited by other scholars.  “I can publish an article in which I make some outlandish claims, and that may well garner many citations as other scholars attempt to refute my statements,” Olson writes. “But someone else’s article that attracts many fewer citations may actually be more useful to work in a particular subfield.

An additional point made about the value of research related to the the tradition in higher education to pursue knowledge for the sake of knowledge. Olson noted that “Often a scholar has no obvious endpoint in mind when he or she embarks on a particular project but may unexpectedly make a monumental discovery.”

Content originally published on Learn more about Interfolio’s acquisition of Data180 here.