In the wake of widespread transformation at the institutions of higher learning, the Commission for University Education (CUE) provided a publication formula to be used alongside other variables during assessment for promotion of academic staff.
The CUE formula is used to generate publication points with a presumed contribution of authors based on positions. But as much as the other variables—teaching experience, ability to attract research funds, mentorship/supervision of postgraduates and community service—seem straightforward, crafting a narrative of scientific research impact is daunting.
The formula awards more publication points to individuals appearing on scientific publications as a single author as opposed to multiple authors.
Then the first three listed authors are more recognised and awarded as opposed to, say, the senior author among multiple authors. And as the number of authors goes beyond 15, the publication points tend to slide towards zero with the most affected being the last.
A critical aspect that the CUE rules ignore but carries a huge weight on scientific publications is the issue of senior authorship and corresponding authors.
Authorship conventions may forever remain specific to the ecologies of particular disciplines.
In most of the basic science research, the convention is that the first author did most of the work and the last is the senior author and the principal investigator (PI) of the laboratory where the project funding was given. Sometimes, if the corresponding author is not the first or last, it is assumed that they are the senior author(s), irrespective of their positions in the list.
As much as all authors in a paper carry equal responsibilities, the corresponding author is always the point of contact for clarity on the contents of a publication. In other disciplines—such as mathematics, economics, business, finance and particle physics—the authors are often listed alphabetically (the Hardy-Littlewood Rule) with a pointer on who the senior or corresponding author is.
Different conventions are used in social and art sciences. Given the complexity of author positions in different disciplines, the CUE standardisation of publication points may not reflect the actual contribution of authors.
As the pressure to “publish or perish” mounts, academicians have been publishing in ‘predatory’ journals on a pay-as-you-publish basis.
I have heard some boast that they can submit a paper in the morning and it’s published by evening! This raises questions as to the quality of the work, much as it could be tagged ‘peer-reviewed’.
With the demand to meet the publication points, individuals can assemble unmerited work and publish as single authors in these journals. Since the data is not rigorously reviewed, the level of scientific contributions, one of the key pillars in any university, will plummet.
Previously, Kenyan universities used the number of publications to assess an individual’s capability to move up the ladder. But that was expunged as it was challenging to identify ‘joyriders’ in a multi-authorship publication.
The CUE should adopt the internationally established standards of recognising academicians’ research outputs through web rankings and indices as provided in platforms such as Google Scholar Citation, the h-index, ResearchGate and several other citation indices for researchers and academicians.
The CUE can establish a cut-off for promotion at every academic level then gather data on the “impact” of journals or book(s) published and assess particular areas of research and publications of the academics.