Balancing university teaching with research – what is the challenge?

For an academic career to be successful, it needs to be rewarding; there has to be passion, dedication and commitment. These elements need to be concomitant with a fine balance between teaching and research. This is surely an expectation and a principle of academic life.

Publishing research material is now considered an essential academic activity for a university academic. Furthermore, for this to be effective, research output needs to make an impact and be available for assessment. However, it may be argued that as a result of this, academic performance has now become balanced on an uncertain fulcrum whereby career progression depends on research as a core element.

Has the value of academic teaching been relegated against this growing culture of research assessment? Does the balance need to be re-addressed? Involvement in research has certain rewards and incentives which can be contributory factors in tipping the balance of priority. There is the availability of grants and a greater chance of promotion and recognition. Tutors may be drawn to the elevated status which deeper academic knowledge can bring. In addition, a higher investment in teaching gives rise to a reduction of funds for other activities; conversely, spending more budget availability on research projects can be self-fulfilling or possibly result in profit.

So could universities be denigrating the role of teaching to something that is necessary – but not worthy of quite so much attention? Of course, this would be preposterous: universities depend on excelling in their teaching for funding and recognition. However, a lecturer who is engaged in academic research must also be engaged in good teaching; this should be a balanced equation.

When universities offer schemes for promotion with research as a contributory element is it surprising that younger members of teaching staff are tempted away from teaching in favour of high levels of research activity? Do the older members, for whom research was not an integral part of their early career, feel compelled to join them?

It would be more prudent to encourage older staff to take research more seriously with the aim of raising teaching standards. Similarly when excellent teaching standards are recognised, this must be linked to reward. Institutions need to think laterally about ways of attracting new investment. Separating careers into teaching or research is not conducive to academic excellence: lecturers must be involved in research in order to teach.

With the introduction of higher fees, quality of teaching will increasingly determine the choice of institution for student study. However, a reputation of excellence in teaching does not constitute an academic career. The vast majority of university lecturers do take research as a balanced part of their teaching role and this is to be applauded. However, is it not time to reassess the balance?

To conclude: choosing an academic vocation means dedication towards research assessment at a critical and intelligent level, exploration and discovery of untapped knowledge – and achievement in scholastic excellence.

The cost of research: are academics paying the price?

Senior academics are under increasing pressure to generate research funding in the higher education sector. With government investment in research still sitting well below the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) average in the UK, academics are feeling the strain and seeking alternative methods of funding. How will a change in the funding process affect the work produced by researchers? Currently, the pressure to secure funds has resulted in academics focusing on turning research into profitable business; this can boost university income and also help continuation of further studies.

The new Research Excellence Framework (REF), which will assess the quality of research in UK higher education institutions from 2015, states that institutions will now have to prove that their research has an impact outside of their own university to receive funding. In the UK alone, several large universities have already started to develop strong links with businesses to boost their income and show the government the impact of the work with economic gain. Could the marketing of higher education be positive? Interestingly, the lecturer’s trade union, the University College Union (UCU), has expressed concern at the lack of traditional funding and indicated opposition to the shift to commercial based research under the new framework.

“There is a real concern that the new system will put pressure on staff to pursue research that will be of benefit to business. 18,000 members signed our petition…which illustrates the unease and concern about this agenda,” the UCU’s policy officer for higher education, Rob Copeland, told the Guardian newspaper. ”That puts pressure on them to look elsewhere for money, whether private contracts or consultancy. I expect the pressure to go up,” added Copeland.

Alarmingly, the lack of high-status research funding has not only altered some academics methods, it may have affected their health: university counselling workers have seen a steady increase in people seeking help for mental health problems in the last few years. Recent research from the UCU shows that nearly half of academics show symptoms of psychological distress. The pressure and difficulty in securing sufficient research funding means academics will often sacrifice personal relationships or engagements to prepare proposals; failure could be hugely detrimental to their career. Many experts believe that it could be this imbalance in personal and professional life, related to the need to secure research funding, that is contributing to mental health issues.

In summary, the current research funding system certainly has room for change, particularly when stress and dissatisfaction levels seem to be running so high. University research is one of the greatest assets of the developed world; it inspires many of the discoveries, ideas and inventions which create growth and further development. It should be in a government’s interest to help universities with their research and ensure that the health of an academic is never compromised as a result of the pressure.

Similarities v plagiarism: is there a margin for debate?

When compiling relevant data for publication, certain common terms and phrases will inevitably be apparent. Many such texts will be researched by different authors and organisations for publication within their publications and websites. Common references and occasionally whole phrases may be embedded in the copy and constitute stylistic language appropriate to the sector under discussion. As a result certain sentences are likely to resemble those written by others of the same subject matter. Is this plagiarism?

It is often from academic studies that certain words in common uses evolve within a sector.  By way of example, to transform a sentence that made reference to the strict code of confidentiality, consent and ethics in scientific research would be almost impossible without mentioning the terms ‘confidential’, ‘ethical approval’ and ‘informed consent’. It would be inappropriate to claim plagiarism as there is very little alternative to express sentences like:

“Written informed consent was obtained from the patient for publication of this case report/study/series and the accompanying images. A copy of the written consent is available for review by the Editor-in-Chief of the journal.”

“Reviewers should continue to keep details of the manuscript and its review confidential.”

“The protocol of this study has been approved by the relevant ethical committee related to our institution in which it was performed. All subjects gave full informed consent to participate in this study.”

“No permission is required for non-commercial use or redistribution of any part of these guidelines”

“All authors contributed to the conception, design, and preparation of the manuscript, as well as read and approved the final manuscript.”

This is a stated fact in everyday use within the scientific research discipline and peer-reviewed publications. Indeed, it may be commonly used in written or spoken text without particular copyright restrictions. However, the question arises as to where to draw the line of balance?

The accepted code of practice in publication of any research paper or study is to substantiate phrases and terms whereby there is direct reference to a published work in a book, magazine or online. A comprehensive list of references used should be printed with corresponding links to any similar material. This would avoid any questions being raised regarding suspected plagiarism or copying.

What about incidental similarity?

The author may not have intended to copy but various common references, which constitute familiar and recognised terms within the industry, may have been used from background research and reading matter. In this case the UK Copyright Service may be consulted and a certificate confirming copyright registration issued. The document may also be passed through software such as ‘iThenticate’ or ‘Grammarly’. The author must take reasonable measures to prevent any accidental infringement on copyright belonging to any other party.

Consider two different authors using the same source material and producing similar works: it would be wise to reference any vulnerable areas to eliminate potential copying or duplicate material. Is it fair to penalise an author when the concept described within a journal or document is similar to another published piece? Surely a different way of expressing a standard rule cannot be disallowed by one party or another. The fact that the wording contained within the concept is completely different should overrule any plagiarism.

In summary, one can argue that common terms and phrases cannot have intellectual property copyright imposed upon it by one source or another. However it is expected to reference all words or phrases which could have been lifted directly from the published work of another author or organisation.