Perverse Incentives in Academia

A perverse incentive is one that has unintended consequences. The world is full of these and the Wikipedia article has some great examples. Academia seems particularly prone to perverse incentives.

Incentive Intended Effect Actual Effect
Researchers rewarded for increased number of publications. Improve research productivity. Avalanche of crappy, incremental papers.
Researchers rewarded for increased number of citations. Researchers do work that is relevant and influential. H-index obsession; list of references no longer included in page limit at many conferences.
Researchers rewarded for increased grant funding. Ensure that research programs are funded, promote growth, generate overhead $$. Time wasted writing proposals, inefficient use of public $$.
Maximum of two proposals submitted to an NSF program. Discourage over-submission. You’d have to be crazy to not meet your quota these days.
Teachers rewarded for increased student evaluation scores. Improved accountability; ensure customer satisfaction. Easy courses, inflated grades.
Teachers rewarded for increased student test scores. Improve teacher effectiveness. Teaching to the tests; emphasis on short-term learning.
Departments rewarded for increasing US News ranking. Stronger departments. Resources squandered trying to influence rankings.
Departments rewarded for increasing numbers of BS, MS, and PhD degrees granted. Promote efficiency; stop students from being trapped in over-long degree programs; impress the state legislature. Class sizes increase; entrance requirements watered down; graduation requirements watered down.
Departments rewarded for increasing student credit/contact hours (SCH). The university’s teaching mission is fulfilled. SCH-maximization games are played: classes are duplicated, turf wars occur over service courses.

Strong academics, it should go without saying, are highly self-motivated — this makes the academic system somewhat resistant to perverse incentive problems. Even so, it’s not realistic to expect everyone to take the high road all the time, particularly since our salaries and jobs are on the line.

What is going on? Fundamentally, the purpose of a university, while being pretty obvious, is tough to quantify. Of course this does not deter administrators, who go ahead and come up with lots of metrics that seem to be — but are not — useful proxies for the proper goals of a university. Then, these metrics are used to determine raises, promotions, and such. The results are depressing but predictable. And of course it’s not fair to simply blame the administrators — at faculty hiring time a thick CV is a lot more reassuring than a thin one.

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14 responses to “Perverse Incentives in Academia”

  1. I’ve often thought the metric for undergraduate programs should be the net present value of the median graduate salary over a career.

    For graduate programs, it should be salary % salary differential upon completion of the program.

    These metrics seem resistant to hacking.

    The problem, of course, is tracing that back to individual professors for RPT purposes.

    We can’t measure what counts, so we count what we can measure.

  2. Thanks Suresh, I remembered the law when writing this but could not think of its name!

    Matt, I can see you’re out to get the history and English departments.

  3. Matt,

    That would encourage people to take higher salaried jobs at the expense of other benefits or “less” money focused jobs such as academia.

  4. This is result of over theoretic natural science leadership “paradigm” taking place in many “raking” seeking universities. It is sad to see highly “industry” and “society” relevant groups to erode and collapse in this process. All highly hierarchal systems with self-governing structures without open debate and civilization try to maximize own power and wealth. This is result of theorist coup d’état (take over) and guarding of artificial scientific “scene” generating knowledge. The ROI of “basic science” is less than 0,001%.

  5. It seems to be the same madness in the US and Europe; in fact I know many other PhD. students who also think of opting out of academica, because all this muddling with the academic system has turned a place for free thinking and for investigating fresh (and sometimes) crazy ideas into a crappy machinery… All those incentives imply meetings, reports, blablabla that keeps us away from what we’re here for: Finding out! Investigating! Creating Knowledge!

  6. Hi Elias, the point isn’t to avoid academia but rather to understand and learn to work around some of its defects.

    All good jobs have barriers to entry and also games that need to be played to be successful.

  7. E E – the incentive to a graduate to take the higher-paying job for his(her) own sake is far stronger than the incentive to the graduate to take the higher-paying job to affect his school’s rankings.

    The question is whether the point of subsidizing undergraduate education is to teach useful skills to allow students to obtain higher-paying jobs down the line, or something else. Given that our country did pretty well in terms of inculcating the values of democratic citizenship with kids who left school at 18 (or younger!) up through World War 2, I don’t believe the claim that college education “makes better people” is sufficient to justify spending tax dollars on it. However, a claim that it makes people more economically productive (or, even more crassly, that it raises their potential lifetime taxable income) does seem like sufficient justification (if provable) for spending tax dollars on.

  8. In Australia it is the same. I do feel for administrators, though, since they don’t really have *any* incentives for us. Carrots? Only promotion to jobs that involve more tedious administration and less of the teaching and research that we like to do. Sticks? Once we have a permanent position, we need to be filmed strangling puppies or stealing the Vice-Chancellor’s parking space to suffer any real consequences.
    The incentives we care about, in terms of grant money and recognition, are totally outside the university’s control.

  9. Dr Clam — I like your summary. The best that most of us can hope for is a career where we’re the administrator of nothing larger than a grant.

  10. I’ve often thought the metric for undergraduate programs should be the net present value of the median graduate salary over a career.

    By that argument, we should train our students to be hedge fund managers and CDO traders.

    These metrics seem resistant to hacking.

    This sentence is true, Matt, but perhaps not in the way you intended.