The Pressures of a Career in Research

August 28, 2019 Susanne Gaertner

Female, desk, paper materials The pressures of a career in research or academia and the resulting impact on researchers’ mental health and well-being, are increasingly recognized as a problem that needs addressing.

As a result, The UK governing body for universities, Universities UK, kick started the #Stepchange Framework in 2017 in an attempt to tackle this growing concern. 

While a positive step forward,  only three universities participated in the #Stepchange Framework pilot scheme in 2018, and the majority of the framework focuses on students, rather than staff. This is a slow uptake at best at a time when the latest report into staff mental health in higher education, indicates that work environments are becoming more stressful.

The range of causes of stress for researchers is broad, including financial insecurity, bullying, competition for tenure, research assessment and the pressure to continually produce outputs.  I’ve chosen to review two of the key reasons behind pressure on researchers - publication pressure, and research assessment exercises, and to look at how individuals and organizations are working to improve visibility and support.

A Culture of Publication Pressure

Three of the main elements of a research role: accessing funding, applying for promotion, and submitting work for research assessment all rely, often heavily, on the researcher’s publication record. Researchers are competing with non-academic organizations for public sector funding, and research assessment exercises are feeding directly into institutional strategies, increasing the pressure on researchers to publish frequently, often in specific journals which are perceived as prestigious.

The pressure of having to publish can, on its own, be stressful for researchers, but add into the mix the huge number of academic journals to choose from (upwards of 30,000), the risks of predatory publishing and the wealth of information to navigate about journal quality and readership, and the burden can feel overwhelming.. In China, the pressure to publish starts during the doctoral study – the majority of Chinese universities now require students to publish several academic articles before they’re permitted to graduate.

The Stress of Submitting to Performance-Based Research Funding Systems (PRFS)

Performance-based research funding systems (PRFS), which allocate research funding,  are currently being used in 35 countries across the EU, US, Australia, and China, according to the European Commission. The process gives researchers the chance to have their hard work acknowledged and potentially awarded funding, but it also involves a significant amount of work in terms of self-analyzing and producing results and data.

In addition to introducing extra workload, PRFS can introduce ethical frustrations for researchers, as assessment often hangs on particular perceptions of academic excellence, including journal prestige and definitions of impact. These areas can be subjective, and differ immensely between subject areas, resulting in tensions between the researchers, the demands of the institution, and the expectations of the assessment panels.

How Are Industry Bodies, Organizations and Institutions Working Together to Tackle the Pressure on Researchers?

Publishers are working hard to improve the resources available to researchers and the levels of transparency when it comes to review processes, readership and publication fees in the hopes of lowering some of the barriers to publication and creating a more positive and supportive publishing process.

With similar drivers, individuals are speaking out about their own challenges with work demands, and encouraging others to do the same to create a network of support and acknowledgment around the pressure experienced by academic researchers.

Specifically in relation to research assessment, there have been calls for those formally involved to reform how the research assessment is carried out, and suggestions that researchers submitting try to reframe the challenge as an opportunity for discussion and debate.

The pressure to publish and continually produce is on the rise. Researchers are expected to do more to meet the requirements of their institutions, who are in turn under pressure from research assessment exercises and funder expectations. This ecosystem is necessary and complex, but also flawed in the way it taxes individual researchers.

It is essential that the scholarly communication system as a whole, including individuals, institutions, service providers and industry bodies, has ongoing discussions about the health of those working in the sector, and works together to improve the level of understanding and support.

Find out more about the #Stepchange Framework, or check out some of the ways publishers are working to support researchers.

About the Author

Susanne Gaertner

Research Marketing, Wiley // Susanne is a Marketing Manager working in the Customer Marketing team for Wiley’s Research business.

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