Reply to “Research incentives and research output”: a caution on quantity incentives and the use of economic models for higher education policy


Using an economic model of academic behaviour, Jorgensenn and Hanssen (Higher Education, 76, 1029–1049, 2018) find that a research incentive based on pages of output would not compromise research quality. Given that quantity is more easily observable, they suggest that such an incentive may have merit as an actual policy. This finding of the economic modelling exercise is shown to rest on an inadequate representation of the policy problem: once the policymaker’s resource trade-off is accounted for, the result fails to hold. A number of other findings and assumptions are critically examined, along with the problematic conflation of findings and assumptions. These concerns raise the broader matter of the merit of using formal economic models to inform higher education policy. A number of reasons are provided to substantiate the view that such models are likely to be inappropriate for this purpose and any policy proposals derived in this fashion ought to be treated with considerable caution.

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  1. 1.

    These resources can be thought of in much broader terms than merely pecuniary ones. For instance, one could consider the opportunity cost of skilled individuals spending time on research that has neither intellectual nor practical value when they could be making other contributions to society.

  2. 2.

    The authors acknowledge in passing that low-quality publications are ‘inevitable’ (Jorgensenn and Hanssen 2018, 1031) but do not elaborate on the reasons for that. Nor do they revisit the issue in their formal analysis or policy proposals.

  3. 3.

    The authors note, for instance, the tension between academic freedom and the manipulative intent behind pecuniary incentives (Jorgensenn and Hanssen 2018, 1031) but proceed on the basis that “[New Public Management] has been the guiding governance model of university reforms in Europe for the last 20 years”.

  4. 4.

    These are Eqs. 1415 and 16, and in the original paper.

  5. 5.

    JH only provide, in the same equation, a reduced form version of Q as a function of parameters and coefficients and do not derive the relevant partial derivative.

  6. 6.

    Assumptions are not findings” notes that a full formulation ought to include the fixed component of salary (τ0).

  7. 7.

    This utilises Eqs. 17 and 23 in the original paper; one could alternatively use Eqs. 16, 18 and 19.

  8. 8.

    In addition, even within the model without a trade-off: for the policy analysis to be sufficiently thorough one should compare the effect of increasing the weight on quantity (τ1) and increasing the weight on quality (τ2).

  9. 9.

    There should be no loss of generality provided the other model parameters are interpreted accordingly. An alternative, more complicated, approach would be to develop a constrained maximisation problem for the policymaker with an appropriately formulated budget constraint.

  10. 10.

    There is no reason—based on the structure of the model or broader logic—to believe that eliminating external opportunities will affect the prioritisation of quantity relative to quality.

  11. 11.

    This is particularly contrary to the intuition of the model itself. The finding that fixed salary does not affect optimal leisure time also contradicts the standard intuition of labour supply models.

  12. 12.

    An example of a dubious assumption that is unlikely to affect the main results is the assumption that academic qualifications do not enter into the salary function (only the quality function).

  13. 13.

    JH state that: “we have made the tacit assumption that the researcher’s perception of the quality of his research...coincides with the employer’s perception in the salary function...This is an important and reasonable assumption” (Jorgensenn and Hanssen 2018, 1035).

  14. 14.

    The result in Eq. 18 of the original paper also implies that if an academic receives no utility from research quantity and there is no quantity incentive, then they will spend zero time per page in equilibrium, which makes no sense.

  15. 15.

    Note that in the model τ0 is not a function of hours worked. If that were the case, then an increase in τ0 would decrease optimal leisure time at lower levels but increase leisure time at higher levels—a phenomenon known as the ‘backward-bending labour supply curve’.

  16. 16.

    The explanation JH provide argues that this is a function of a maximising trade-off within the salary function, but that explains why an academic would increase the number of pages written—not time per page.

  17. 17.

    In economic modelling, the effect on research quality by existing academics would be at the ‘intensive margin’ while the effect on the population of academics would be at the ‘extensive margin’.

  18. 18.

    The map analogy is often attributed to a story by Lewis Carroll.

  19. 19.

    Economists themselves tend to limit contributions to this area to justifications for, or rationalisations of, the status quo (Gilboa et al. 2014; Rodrik 2015).

  20. 20.

    JH in fact discuss an aspect of this in relation to their transition from a general model to one with very specific functional forms.

  21. 21.

    This is somewhat ironic, since one of the arguments economists use in favour of mathematical models is that they are transparent.


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Muller, S.M. Reply to “Research incentives and research output”: a caution on quantity incentives and the use of economic models for higher education policy. High Educ 78, 1129–1138 (2019).

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  • Research output
  • Research incentives
  • Higher education policy
  • Economic models
  • Economics of higher education