What’s the Fuss about KPI?

Some years ago, my buddy Tuck-Cheong Tang forwarded an interesting article by Faria (2003) on the classification of economists, which I would like to share here (click here for Prof. Faria’s profile). Briefly, when more emphasis is placed on the quantity of their publications, economists are classified as r-strategists. On the other hand, K-strategists are those who target top journals as the outlets for their research papers. In his simple model, the author shows that neither r– nor K-strategies can maximize the influence of an economist in the profession. Instead, economists are more likely to be successful if they are able to strike a balance between quantity and quality.

Of course, this paper assumes that academics often strive to maximize the success of their careers (either to be prolific or influential). From my general observation, this is a very strong assumption in Malaysian academia as a whole. For instance, when many Malaysian public universities set publication in quality journals as a key performance indicator (KPI), many academics felt that their comfort zones have been challenged (see their grumblings here and here). It is worth highlighting that quality here is defined as citation-indexed journals such as Scopus or ISI/WoS, but not those top-tier journals targeted by K-strategists.

Even with such a realistic KPI, many are still feeling the pressure. I assume that they have no problem with KPI per se as performance evaluation is common in every public or private organization. Before joining academia, I was told that publishing academic papers is part and parcel of academic life (see here), and professors are those who have achieved intellectual excellence and are widely regarded as the experts in their respective fields of study. Just like the advice given by Sanjiv Das to those prospective PhD students and academics, “If you “know” that you enjoy research and will love teaching, don’t mind working all the time, anytime, for small money but great personal satisfaction, then sign up now. But don’t do it because you think the lifestyle is great, or you believe some rosy picture of an academic in an ivory tower” (click here). So what is the big fuss now? (I am supportive of the stand stated here and here).

I can only assume that they have been misinformed about academic life. As this author suggested,  “To avoid having “dead wood” in academia, universities should also stringently screen potential lecturers at the interview emphasising their expected role once they are in the system. Those who think they cannot comply with the university requirements can seek their fortune elsewhere” (click here).