University tenure decisions still gloss over scientists’ public outreach

Analysis of internal documents shows that promotions and tenure largely depend on metrics such as the number of publications and citations.

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Universities often tout their commitment to public outreach. But a new study of the internal guidelines for faculty tenure and promotion suggests that institutions don’t always put much value on public engagement.

“There’s a huge disconnect,” says lead author Juan Pablo Alperin, who studies scholarly communications at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada. “Universities talk in a grandiose way about fulfilling the public mission. But when we look at the documents, they aren’t necessarily walking the walk.”

Alperin and his colleagues examined 864 documents used for review, promotion and tenure decisions (also called RPT documents) at 129 universities in the United States and Canada. The documents covered a wide array of disciplines, including life sciences, physical sciences, mathematics and social sciences. The team published their results1 on 1 October as a preprint in the Humanities Commons repository.

Words matter

The researchers looked for keywords including ‘community’, ‘public’ and ‘impact’, and the context in which they appeared in the documents. The team found relatively few direct references to public outreach, a broad term that includes activities such as community-involved research projects or communications aimed at general audiences.

But they did find a large emphasis on publications and citations, the usual metrics of achievement. Grants, journal articles, books and other conventional scientific outputs were mentioned at least once in 90% to 95% of RPT documents from the universities (see ‘Measuring up’).

In terms of context, the word ‘community’ showed up in every document from universities with the most research activity. But it appeared most often within 15 words of the terms ‘university’, ‘service’, ‘faculty’ and ‘professional’, in that order, suggesting that the focus was largely on the academic community.

The word ‘impact’ also appeared in 94% of RPT documents from top research universities. And it was most associated with the words ‘research’, ‘candidate’, ‘work’ and ‘faculty’, in that order.

‘Public’ was number 88 on the list of terms likely to be within 15 words of ‘impact’. Taken together, the word groupings suggest a preoccupation with research-related impacts rather than the public-engagement ones, the authors conclude.

Source: Ref. 1

Alperin says word frequencies provide an empirical measure of the priorities of university departments and hiring committees.

He acknowledges, however, that words do not always equate with action. The analysis found plenty of hedge phrases such as ‘typically include’, suggesting that hiring committees had much leeway in their decisions, Alperin says. “These guidelines are written in a way that is purposefully vague.”


The use of ‘community’ in the documents underscores a long-standing issue at universities, says Emily Janke, an education and community engagement researcher at the University of North Carolina in Greensboro. Research projects that are conducted with input and guidance from members of the public are often seen as service not science, which automatically demeans the work. “RPT guidelines mainly value scholarship that can be counted and assessed within established academic conventions,” she says.

Most universities haven’t even started the conversation about weighing the importance of community involvement, says David Moher, a clinical epidemiologist at the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute in Canada, who has studied the process of assessing scientists for promotion2.

“Universities need to engage in more discussions with their local communities to ascertain what’s important to them,” he says. “These discussions are more likely to happen if university leadership promotes such dialogue as important and relevant to the institution’s growth and development.”

Alperin notes that any change in the system generally requires a change of incentives. Words only go so far, he says, and altering the wording of the guidelines won’t necessarily give different outcomes.

Universities of all types rely largely on public funds to support research, Alperin says, so the motivation to improve public outreach should already be apparent.

doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-06906-z
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  1. 1.

    Alperin, J. P. et al. Preprint at Humanities Commons (2018).

  2. 2.

    Moher, D. et al. PLoS Biol. (2018).

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