“Before long, the winner will be the best salesman, not the best researcher”

“Before long, the winner will be the best salesman, not the best researcher”

"We are in a difficult period in which we are trying to get a different system off the ground"

31-01-2022 · Science

MAASTRICHT. Many agree that universities are heading in the right direction with Recognition and Rewards, paying attention to various career paths. But there are also worries, about the pressure of work, for example. “Do we have to do the impossible?” someone asked during a Zoom session, organised by the Maastricht Young Academy, two weeks ago. And what about a NWO subsidy application? If that may no longer include a list of publications and citations scores, the writer of the 'best story' has the best chance, critics say.

It is great that you are given the opportunity at a university to excel in teaching, research, leadership, impact on society, or health care in the clinic, but does this not just lead to more work pressure instead of less? This is one of many points that participants (about eighty, mainly from Maastricht) bring up during the meeting.
Hanneke Hulst, professor of Neuropsychology in Health and Disease at Leiden University and invited as a guest speaker by the Maastricht Young Academy, emphasises that more work is certainly not the idea. As one of the more than a hundred young scientists, she responded to a critical letter (from mainly professors) about Recognition and Rewards on Dutch Science Guide last Summer.
Hulst: “As an academic, you have to make smart decisions, about what you are good at, what you like doing, what fits in with the department or the team? I don’t push my PhD candidates in the direction of a television performance, because I feel that they have to make an impact. No, they are allowed to do so. Moreover, their research has to be suitable for such an occasion.”
Still, she does admit that the change in course with Recognition and Rewards is one that will require stamina. “The problem of work pressure won’t be resolved immediately, because we are in a transitional period, a difficult period in which we are trying to get a different system off the ground.”

The best tip

Over the next few years, it will be a matter of trial and error, Hulst reckons. “It may take Recognition and Rewards ten years to fully evolve.” This also means that there has to be a search for the best way to assess a scientist, on education, leadership or research skills. In case of the latter: Is a list of one’s CV and the number of citation and publications really no longer necessary in an NWO Veni or Vidi application? Will a 'narrative' about a research project really be sufficient? It is, at any rate, cause for uncertainty; a young researcher from MUMC enquires about the best tip: “What should I include in my application? What will have the greatest chance of success?” There was no convincing answer.


“The only thing that seems to count is a great sales pitch,” reckons Floris de Lange, professor of Perception and Cognition at Radboud University Nijmegen, also performing as a guest speaker. “Before long, the winner will be the best salesman, not the best researcher.”

De Lange joined up with the other 170 scientists who spoke out about the negative consequences of Recognition and Rewards in Science Guide in July 2021. The group warned that Dutch scientists, especially those from the medical and science areas, were being threatened with the loss of their international top position. Universities and NWO must use “objective and measurable standards” for academics who are mainly doing research, they wrote. “We mustn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater,” De Lange now says.


Jos Prickaerts, professor of Experimental Neuropsychopharmacology at Maastricht University, agrees. He also signed the letter in Science Guide. He was not present at MYA’s session, but he does want to elaborate on his “comment” about Recognition and Rewards. “For my last subsidy application to NWO, my CV was removed, I was not allowed to mention the impact factors of journals in which I had published, no individual H factor, only open-access papers, so no paper from the past that was really good (but not open access). If you strip all that off, all that remains is a story about the research project. So, it comes down to choosing the right words that enable you to express yourself most strongly. That is going to end up being a trick.”


Prickaerts refers to DORA, the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment, which President Rianne Letschert signed on behalf of Maastricht University in 2019. “In doing so, you are actually saying: as a university we want more than just the number of publications in top scientific journals. Let’s be done with the impact factor. And sure, I agree with that one. An impact factor is the average number of times that articles from a journal have been quoted. It doesn’t say much about an individual scientist. What does it say that you have been published Nature or Science? For sure, it is very clever. But much more important is the impact that you have in your field. If nobody knows who you are, if colleagues don’t pick up on your work in Nature, if nobody refers to your ‘fantastic’ articles, what are you doing then?”

H factor

What are alternative criteria to measure the quality of a scientist? The so-called H factor, the Hirsch index, dependent on how often your publications have been quoted in other people’s publications? Is that figure the be-all and end-all? Prickaerts: “That also has disadvantages. The older you are, the higher the H factor, because you have simply published more. 

“I find that a good alternative is CNCI, the Category Normalized Citation Impact. How often is a researcher referred to? And how does that hold up against the average in his or her field? In this case, the last three or five years is the point of departure. This means that a Principal Investigator can’t just rest on his or her laurels. You can use it as an individual figure, but you can also calculate it for a whole team. For example, to evaluate an institute. What is wrong with mapping out quality in this way? I absolutely applaud Recognition and Rewards, but we shouldn’t take it too far.”

Recognition and Rewards

In November 2019, all Dutch universities and organisations such as the VSNU, KNAW and NWO emphasised the importance of a new way of recognising and rewarding scientists. The advisory memo is called: Room for everyone’s talent. Rianne Letschert, rector of Maastricht University, and the rector of Eindhoven University of Technology are the primary leaders.

Simply put, the new initiative is mostly a cultural change, a different mindset. The rat race in which scientists find themselves must be abolished. Why should everyone be the best in the field of research with all its quote scores and checklists? The one-size-fits-all model is a thing of the past. Personal growth is important. Scientists should be given the freedom to develop themselves in one or more fields.

But this entails much more than a cultural change. Universities will have to introduce new rules for recruitment, selection, promotion and development. HR policies will also have to be reformed.

Author: Wendy Degens

Illustration: Simone Golob

Categories: news_top, Science
Tags: recognition and rewards,r&r,recognitionrewarding

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