Research achievements and academic publications are still the main standards for acknowledgement and appreciation in the academic world. According to Kim Huijpen, the VSNU’s Acknowledgement and Appreciation programme manager, however, academic careers are still far too ‘one size fits all’ as a result. ‘You do a PhD, start out as a researcher, apply for funding and in this manner slowly scale the academic ladder. Universities and research funders primarily look at publications, particularly ones in high-impact journals. There is not much latitude to take another route. In addition, the strong emphasis on publications in many cases leads to work pressure that is pretty high.’
Huijpen considers this a pity. ‘The academic spectrum has far more colours than this. Universities and research institutes are not just intended for teaching and research, but also to maintain connections with the society around us. Leadership is another issue that often takes a back seat in academia. The same goes for patient care in university medical centres.’
In November 2019, the VSNU and other parties in the knowledge sector published a position paper entitled Ruimte voor ieders talent (Opportunity for everyone’s talent). In it, the authors make the case for wider acknowledgement and appreciation of the work of academics, with less emphasis on numbers of publications and more on the other domains in which they operate (such as teaching and valorisation).
According to Huijpen, it is important to ensure a more pleasant working environment, without the stress of excessive pressure to publish. ‘To that end, we want to create better opportunities, for example for open access publications, as well as for open science, where society is more involved in research. Greater appreciation of team achievements is also important to us.’
Ultimately, academics need to have more say about their careers, Huijpen explains. ‘That means that they will be able to focus more on teaching, if that’s what they want, or on a role as manager or supervisor, or on working together with the business world or in patient care. And then they need to receive appreciation for this too.’
By now, all of the research universities and other research centres have set up special committees to deal with this theme. ‘What we want in particular is for the movement to be formed and fed by academics themselves, and that they themselves set the tone in the debate about acknowledgement and appreciation. The fact that people are unable to meet one another in person due to the coronavirus crisis is of course an obstacle in this regard.
Luckily, we are seeing online consultation taking place, with many committees indicating that they would like to continue their work, despite the current circumstances. This goes to show that this is a popular topic in academia in the Netherlands.’
Yet the question also remains whether acknowledging and showing appreciation of others in some other way will not ultimately lead to even greater work pressure. Does this mean that, in the future, academics will need to be talented in multiple areas in order to receive sufficient acknowledgement? Certainly not, Huijpen clarifies. ‘We’re not looking for exceptionally multi-talented individuals, but are looking to allow everyone to make the most of their talents.’
The role of HR departments in all this will primarily be to put it on the agenda. ‘I think it’s an HR department’s duty to bring academics together so they can engage in debate. Another important duty is tending to the administrative instruments. What do assessment forms, job vacancy postings and other HR instruments currently look like? What do they say? How should they be changed? Take, for example, the H index. Is it still being inquired about? HR instruments can have a really strong influence and help maintain a certain culture as a result.’
At UMC Utrecht, the debate about acknowledgement and appreciation already began in earnest a few years ago, Huijpen tells us. ‘There too, discussion included the topic of whether, for example, the H index was still a suitable means of measurement. It is good to realise that there is no strict new recipe for this, and that the result will differ from university to university, discipline to discipline and department to department. The mission of a department concerned with biotechnology will of course differ from that of a cultural anthropology department, so this will require other performance indicators as well.’
All things considered, Huijpen sees that there is a great deal of enthusiasm to take on this topic. But first things first, she emphasises. ‘Before we take concrete steps in adjusting instruments, that mutual debate needs to take place. Only then will we be able to achieve this strong shift in culture. And then we will really be able to actually introduce a new manner of acknowledgement and showing appreciation, ultimately resulting in lower work pressure.’