Who benefits from the work of outsiders?

The difficult-to-define position of grant researchers in university communities manifests itself as small discriminatory, often offensive acts of division.

On a day-to-day level, these may take the form of, say, the lack of staff IDs, occupational health care or access to the university’s electric systems. More serious insults, on the other hand, have included workspace rents, removing grant researchers from university-managed websites – as the University of Helsinki is doing – or naming grant researchers “outsiders”, as Tampere University did a couple of years ago. These and countless similar gestures not only undermine the value of research funding acquired by researchers, but often make researchers themselves feel like second-class members of the academic community: ones who are not allowed to expect anything from the university, or whose work is not as important as that of salaried researchers.

Unfortunately, this text will not offer a solution to the structural problem in universities. Instead, we want to point out that in addition to scientific contributions, the work of grant researchers has easily measurable monetary value. A researcher working at a university with external funding may actually earn more money for the university than for themselves – and for that reason, would deserve something more than disparagement as a reward for their efforts.

Research grants play an important role

Fixed-term external funding, or research grants, plays an important role in the Finnish field of research. While for our Anglo-American colleagues, “postdoc” is the time period between the dissertation and tenure, in Finland the word often refers to a higher grant category reached after completing the dissertation: the kind that, in some fields, one works on even for the vast majority of their research career. A large number of doctoral researchers also work with the same, albeit smaller, grants – and often fixed-term.

Of course, the phenomenon highlighted in this text – the funding model of research institutes, according to which universities receive part of their funding based on the output of researchers – does not only apply to fixed-term researchers. But since hard-pressed universities have at their disposal a wide range of means that manage to portray especially grant researchers as liminal hangaround members of the university community, we would like to highlight here a point that should, surely, already be known to the entire community. Even so, let’s say it out loud: a scholar who lists their publications in the university’s publication register makes the university money. Dosh. Hard cash.

How much money is that exactly? The actual sums for each year can only be calculated afterwards, based on the total number of publications of the past year. This means that when the number of publications increases, the value of a single publication decreases. In 2018, for example, the value of one “JUFO point” – i.e. an article published in a journal classified as Level 1 by the national Publication Forum – to the author’s Finnish home university was €4,200 (Seuri and Vartianen 2018: 107); the value of the “basic point” estimated for 2022 is around €3,940 (Tapio Määttä, personal communication). But the order of magnitude is roughly the same: one basic point still accounts for around four thousand euros.

So, in a nutshell: the university receives approximately four grand for an article you have written if it is published in a peer-reviewed JUFO Level 1 journal. For an article published in a journal classified as JUFO Level 2, the university receives three JUFO points (€12,000), and four points (€16,000) for those published in a JUFO Level 3 journal. When you add to this the 20-percent additional factor granted for an Open Access publication, the maximum compensation paid for one peer-reviewed article starts to approach twenty thousand euros. The list could go on. Universities are paid from four to sixteen JUFO points for monographs published through academic publishers listed in the Publication Forum. With the OA factor, this could amount to more than €75,000 at this year’s rates. It is great that the Finnish government values scientific knowledge so highly.

Hourly-paid teaching must also be taken into account

Of course, in this funding model, universities also receive part of their funding on the basis of completed degrees and credits. Even in teaching, the contribution of grant researchers is inherently something that is expected. Hourly-paid teaching is usually paid for separately, but it should be noted that grant researchers are a labour reserve that has not had to be recruited separately and to which there is no obligation to commit.

As a side note, it should also be mentioned that this performance bonus arrangement further strengthens the position of certain types of measurable output in the world of research. For instance, the selection of the research article as the unit of measurement for both university funding and personal merit correspondingly undermines the status of other academic genres – essays, discussion forums, monograph reviews and texts that are more difficult to classify. The dominant position of the research article also gnaws away incentives to influence social issues and, for example, to lend one’s expertise to support decision-making. When one form of academic activity is overemphasised in both bonus systems and recruitment, it inevitably pushes aside other dimensions and opportunities of the researcher’s life that are valuable as such. The above-mentioned teaching also belongs to this same group that is often essential, but overlooked in terms of both money distribution and appreciation. The job description of a researcher therefore increasingly reflects these performance bonus systems.

However, in this text, we want to first and foremost highlight the fact that universities are bad at saying “thank you” to their researchers. In the past, they have excelled at reminding especially early career grant researchers of the calculated costs that researchers cause for the university: the shares of the costs of walls, desks, computers and libraries allocated to an individual employee. Not-so-long-ago, universities even charged grant researchers rent to cover such expenses, which has had an impact on researchers’ sense of self-worth. As if the classrooms or offices would remain cold and empty without grant researchers, although in reality they come to work on their research in an environment whose expenses their activities will not increase. Some universities have taken steps in the right direction to improve the position of grant researchers, but the division still remains deep-rooted. It is as if there are real employees and then those who show up to dabble in science.

Discussion at the University of Helsinki

At the University of Helsinki, there was even a short but intense exchange of views on the value of publications and other output a decade ago, when the Faculty of Social Sciences at UH started charging rent from its grant researchers. In the ensuing “hearings”, some researchers even threatened the faculty with a so-called TUHAT strike: not entering their research output in the university’s register. At that time, the administration representative dismissed the threat by stating that the sums distributed are not large enough to have any real significance. Later on, the TUHAT research portal (maintained by Elsevier) used by at least the University of Helsinki has been more closely connected to information systems such as ORCID that allow new publications to be listed directly in the university’s own database, often without active input from the researcher. A TUHAT strike would not be that easy to organise anymore.

Nevertheless, the purpose of this short text is not to incite anyone to go on strike immediately, but to make it clear to the members of the university community that, in addition to its intellectual and research value, our work has a distinct economic value. When talking about the value of research or the ones conducting it, money is admittedly the wrong measure. But sometimes it seems to be the only thing that the different parties can more or less agree on.

 

Ville Laakkonen & Matti Eräsaari