Power & Market

Higher Education Too Often Values Second-Rate Economics Research over Teaching

Higher Education

People act according to incentives, and university professors are no exception. Professors receive tenure and promotion based largely on the number and quality of papers they have published in their area of expertise. The number of papers published is a simple metric, but how should the quality of publishing be judged? Surely the quality of published research should be judged on the extent to which it benefits society. That is to say, quality research provides information that can be used to make people better off than they would have been if the research had not been carried out and published.

In fact, I would also argue that this goal, to make people better off than otherwise, should also be the goal of university teaching, or, in fact, teaching at any level.

Universities have a dual role – teaching and research. Professors are generally required to do both these tasks. But clearly some individuals may be better at teaching than research, or the reverse. Or, as we economists would say, some professors may have a comparative advantage in teaching while others have a comparative advantage in research. This implies that those who are better at teaching should do more teaching and leave most research to those who are better at it.

Within the field of economics, most professors would accomplish far more by concentrating on teaching, while leaving research to the few who are most likely to make some contributions to the betterment of society. This is because the general public is far too ignorant of basic economics, which among other things implies that they can be misled by misguided or unscrupulous politicians, supposing to provide policies for the benefit of society when they do not. Therefore, the instruction of basic economics, to not only university and college students but also to the general public through media outlets and by other means could provide huge benefits to society – far greater benefits, I believe, than the vast amount of published academic economics research.

Worldwide, thousands of economics research articles are published each year in academic journals. If, say, only one percent of these articles were of benefit to society, how much better off would society be than it is now? Clearly, if published research papers were based on the potential benefit to society, there were would be far fewer published academic papers.

In academia, tenure and promotion decisions are almost never based on teaching but instead on published research. And the most universally accepted measure of academic publishing is based on something called the h-factor. The h-factor is derived from a combination of quantity of papers published and the number of times the papers are cited in other researchers’ publications. This value is best explained by a simple numerical example. Suppose a person has published 6 papers. The number of times each paper has been cited in other people’s research is counted. If, say, 4 of these papers have been cited at least 6 times, the h number for this researcher is 4. You will also note that the maximum h-factor for a researcher equals the number of papers published.

Unfortunately, the h-factor does not measure the benefit to society of academic research and thus it does not measure the quality of research. For example, suppose a scientist has been working diligently on one targeted research project and finally publishes this research, which is generally hailed as having a huge benefit, say, in the health field. Supposing this is his only publication, his h-factor would be a lowly 1. A real-world example further illustrates this problem. A recent study of Isaac Newton’s published work found his h-factor to be 70. This measure did not even put Newton in the top 8,000 of the world’s greatest scientists.

Sticking with the evaluation of published economics research, some years ago the prestigious American Economic Review published its list of “The 20 Most Influential Economic Papers of All Time,” together with the conclusions derived from the research backing up each paper. Below, are the conclusions of about half these papers.

  • People must focus on prices when making economic decisions.
  • At any given time, there is only a certain number of jobs available, and hence a natural rate of unemployment.
  • You can model what happens when consumers observe a price change and do not know whether other prices have changed as well.
  • You can figure out how much a given amount capital and labour can produce.
  • The cost of financing investment decisions is a determining factor when investing.
  • Companies should measure productivity and devote managerial resources to do it.
  • Prices can be a source of information to consumers.
  • In poor countries, people migrate from rural areas to urban centers.
  • Government and foreign debt can hurt the formation of physical capital in the long run.

Does it really take thousands of published academic papers annually to come up with this sort of information?


University economics departments are wasting huge amounts of money to pay for weak research that does not benefit society. In fact, society would be much better served by teaching basic economics to as many people as possible.

Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.
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