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Entering the Italian Academic Community: Publish-and-Perish Rules

In Italy, a committee comprising three members grants tenured positions atthe lowest level, namely research assistant professor. These committees draw members from two sources: The institution that makes the position available nominates one person, and the others are elected, at the national level, by professors in the field. National regulations require that the applicants submit a limited number of published papers. The universities specify the number; the applicants choose which papers are su

By | June 21, 2004

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In Italy, a committee comprising three members grants tenured positions atthe lowest level, namely research assistant professor. These committees draw members from two sources: The institution that makes the position available nominates one person, and the others are elected, at the national level, by professors in the field. National regulations require that the applicants submit a limited number of published papers. The universities specify the number; the applicants choose which papers are submitted. While this may sound reasonable, the outcome is often anything but.

Consider a recent case at Politecnico di Torino, Italy, where a slot for research assistant professor in biomedical engineering became available. The administration ruled that an applicant could submit no more than 10 publications (the term is not defined) in addition to the applicant's complete curriculum vitae for the evaluation of his or her scientific activity.

Two applications were submitted. Applicant 1 was the last author of two papers and had made a few presentations to congresses. Applicant 2 was the first author of 21 papers, coauthor of another 10, all in international journals, and had made more than 50 presentations at congresses and workshops.

The committee decided to evaluate the congressional proceedings. On the basis of their scientific records, both applicants were graded at the top level, even though one was more "top" by an order of magnitude. The committee awarded applicant 1 the job, owing to small differences in a test evaluation and the applicant's previous teaching activities. The rejected applicant is leaving Italy, having accepted the offer of a foreign university.

Certainly, not all assessment committees apply or interpret the law in such a literal way, but the rules allow them to do so, and they can legally neglect internationally recognized scientific production.

The brain-drain phenomenon has been extensively discussed and is not strictly Italian.12345 However, internal politics, cronyism, and exchanges of favors among committee members are strongly facilitated in Italy by the very limited weight that the rules assign to scientific excellence. What would be the motivation for doing high-quality research when only 10 (in some Universities only five!) "publications" are sufficient, even for full professorship, and presentations to congresses (with no peer review) may carry almost the same weight as full papers? Selection criteria are not based on scientific excellence, such as would be indicated by special recognition or membership on a prestigious journal's editorial board. The discretion of the Italian committees to introduce subjective factors is too high, and the ceiling set for scientific qualifications is too low. Why should a ceiling set at all?

All this helps explain why only 10.3% of the EU scientific publications come from Italy, compared to 15.2% from France, 20.3% from Germany, and 23.7% from the UK.6

The message to young researchers in Italy is clear. The quality and quantity of publications in selective peer-reviewed journals serve no purpose. Two papers and a few presentations at congresses may be sufficient. Writing more than 10 papers, or even five, is wasteful. Teaching helps a lot, especially on time paid by research grants. And, if your committee is interpreting the law in a strict sense, you'll get tenure. Follow these rules and you can even beat an applicant who has a Nobel Prize, and do it according to the rules without fear of any legal appeal. One word of caution though: Count carefully the 10 (or five) publications you submit, as the rule is severe: If you submit more your application is automatically disregarded. It's the publish-and-perish rule.

Professor C. Doncarli, Institute of Research in Communications and Cybernetics, Nantes, France; Professor M. Ljubisavljevich, Department of Neurophysiology, Institute for Medical Research, Belgrade, Serbia; Professor R. Merletti, Department of Electronics, and Professor M. Passatore, Department of Neuroscience, University of Torino, Italy; Profesor U. Windhorst, Center for Physiology and Pathophysiology, University of Gottingen, Germany; Professor D. Zazula, Faculty of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, University of Maribor, Slovenia

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