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Finnish scientific funding favours some disciplines over others

Article: Ilkka Hemmilä
Illustration: Pixabay/Nella Keski-Oja
  • According to assistant professor Kirsi Salonen, the faculties have started to put emphasis on the applicants’ level of their Publication Forum publications in their recruiting.

Finland’s controversial funding model prioritises publishing channels. Internationalisation can easily override studies written in Finnish and benefitting the Finnish society.

”It’s not a matter of calculating error, but the classification preferring certain areas of discipline.”

Risto Rinne, the professor of education at University of Turku (UTU), seems upset, to put it mildly. With a decades long career, now the foremost thought in his head is: how to get research funding, when the funding model of the Ministry of Education and Culture prioritises other disciplines?

Colleagues from other faculties are familiar with this concern. Behind it is the classification system that evaluates the research that universities produce. The system is called Publication Forum, in Finnish often shortened as JuFo from Julkaisufoorumi. Based on this, the Ministry of Education and Culture grants 13 percent of the basic funding of universities, totalling nearly 1,8 billion euros. JuFo is the biggest single basis in funding distribution.

Publication Forum is a classification system made by Finnish scientists, which evaluates the quality of scientific publication channels. Channels include for example scientific journals and book publishers. JuFo classifies these into four categories, rated per value: most of the channels are placed in category 1 (“basic level”), about one in ten is classified into category 2 (“leading level”), and category 3 (“highest level”) is the smallest. Channels that are not scientific are classified as 0.

The higher level of classification the publication channel receives, the more money it produces to the university. The multipliers are enormous. For example, if basic level research produces 100 euros to the university, highest level research in the same discipline produces 400 euros to the university, whereas category 0 research produces 10 euros. Therefore, there is a 40-fold difference between the best and the worst classification.

Sounds uncomplicated, but it isn’t.

Does Domestic Visibility Suffer?

Besides his work as a professor and director in the Department of Education, Risto Rinne is also a member of the Publication Forum steering group. He, among many other practitioners of human sciences, feels that the system doesn’t consider the differences in publishing and practicing science between different disciplines.

”A lot of high quality work and massive resources are reduced to nothing. This is the worst side of the Publication Forum”, Rinne criticises.

Why does this happen? First, the highest categories emphasise internationality at the cost of domesticity. Only one Finnish publication has been accepted into the highest level, and only few on the basic and leading levels.

Value judgement hits the humanities, educational sciences and social sciences the hardest, since they produce a lot of research in Finnish, to a Finnish audience and to the benefit the Finnish society. According to Rinne, the funding model has already changed the publication principles of many disciplines rather harshly.

”Publications in categories zero and one are occasionally left undone entirely, even though they could be important to a functional society.”

Being put into lower categories does not mean that the research is poor quality. JuFo does not rate the quality of individual research, but the accreditation and recognisability of the publication forum. The more researchers cite the publication, the higher rating it receives.

The publications that get cited less tend to stay in the lower classification categories. These include, for example, research published in a small language, such as Finnish.

Criticism is Nothing New

After its inception in 2010, JuFo has received constant criticism, and the system has been adjusted to be as equal as possible. 23 discipline-specific Expert Panels evaluate and update their own publishing channels for JuFo.

There has been plenty of work to do, says intendant Janne Pölönen from Federation of Finnish Learned Societies (TSV), which upholds the Publication Forum.

”Originally, the amount of publications in categories two and three was noticeably high in the fields of natural sciences and in medicine and health. However, the classification has been made more stringent especially in the hard sciences.”

In last year’s evaluations, the amount of category two publications was increased particularly in the areas where research made in Finnish is important. There is also an aspiration to have the same amount of publications in each category.

The goal is easier set than achieved. Originally, journals were classified according to the amount of titles, but the centralisation of publication favours medical and natural sciences. Later, the classification was altered to reflect the amount of published research, instead of the number of journals. Despite the adjustments, perfect balance between all disciplines could be difficult to achieve.

“Even though the classification has been balanced more, the amount of research in highest categories varies due to for example publication practices and the differences in methodology”, Pölönen admits.

Methodological comparison works poorly

What do the differences in publication practices and methodology mean in practice? Let us ask Kirsi Salonen, the assistant professor in general history.

”There are massive differences in doing everyday research. For example, humanists often write long monographs. On the other hand, in medical and natural sciences, the method is to write a lot of articles that are done in workgroups – and if the members are from different universities, each of them gets funding according to the JuFo categories”, Salonen illuminates.

To exacerbate: a human scientist writes their hundreds of pages of research alone, and a natural scientist writes their twenty-page article in a group. JuFo does not take different methodologies into account, but awards the researchers with the same number of points, regardless of the amount of work.

In practice, JuFo drives the human scientists to change their methods to please the publication system. Salonen thinks that the difference between disciplines could be closed, but it requires a large-scale change in methodology in some disciplines – and no change in others.

Despite everything, Salonen does not see the existence of JuFo as a negative. The assistant professor does note that choosing the publication forum with JuFo scores in mind might not necessarily lead to better quality science.

”It’s difficult to see how exactly the JuFo system improves the quality of science. It’s very artificial to direct people into publishing elsewhere and expect that this makes the research better. Making research probably just becomes slower, if you have to wait to be published in top journals, where the publication pressure is immense.”

The New Normal for Researchers

According to Risto Rinne and Kirsi Salonen, JuFo does have its positive qualities despite everything. When there are aspirations to publish on a higher level, the research is cited more than before, which advances the internationalisation of Finnish research.

Much like Janne Pölönen, Rinne and Salonen emphasise that the system is being constantly developed, and the differences in disciplines is being taken into consideration. Despite the differences in methodology between disciplines, JuFo is more balanced than before. Rinne still wonders whether a completely balanced classification is possible.

”Upkeep of a system is human work. There are no exact definitions for classifications”, Rinne sums up.

Even the smallest changes make university people pay attention, since these adjustments concern them. To protect their own discipline, the scientists are forced to pay attention to their own activity more often. Their everyday work has direct influence to the discipline’s ability to do research and offer education.

JuFo Also Influences the University of Turku

When creating the Publication Forum (JuFo), the Federation of Finnish Learned Societies (TSV) emphasised that the classification should not be used in funding distribution inside universities or evaluating individual researchers. But this did not work. 

The annual budget of the University of Turku (UTU) is about 262 million euros, of which 13 percent is granted by the Ministry of Education and Culture, directly per the JuFo classifications (budget of 2015).

Two thirds of the budget consists of basic funding granted by the ministry. Universities receive the basic funding without earmarking, but the amount is formed based on achievements by individual disciplines i.e. number of graduated students and research done. .

In practice, universities keep track of the disciplines’ achievements based on the JuFo classifications, and distribute basic funding to the faculties accordingly. This is done in Turku as well.

The changes in faculty funding caused by the funding model can be two percent annually at most. Despite that, the decision about internal money distribution is big, because the methodology differs from discipline to discipline. Additionally the faculties have varying practices in distributing the money among departments and individual subjects.

THE CHANGES in the JuFo classifications bring insecurity to the everyday lives of researchers.

 “When the change in the funding model was published, the personnel began to speculate how this will affect the monetary distribution. It does stay at the back of your head at all times”, says Kirsi Salonen, the assistant professor at the faculty of general history.

The other guideline given by the TSV has failed as well; according to Salonen, the faculties have started to pay attention to the JuFo classifications of articles published by job applicants in their recruiting.

Using JuFo and other monetary distribution principles in deciding the faculty funding is tempting for universities, since they receive their own funding according to these models as well. TSV does still emphasise that the system was created to analyse large amounts of research, and it does not function as an evaluation tool for individual units or researchers.

Janne Pölönen, the intendant of the Federation of Finnish Learned Societies wishes that the universities would keep this limitation in mind when applying JuFo for their own purposes. According to him, the consistent use of the system does imply that there is demand for different evaluation systems.

 “There is probably no stopping the use of the classification system, unless universities agree to it amongst themselves”, Pölönen ponders.

Publication Forum (JuFo)

  • JuFo is a classification system that evaluates research produced by universities
  • The evaluations are based on the level of the publication channels used
  • The publication channels are divided into four different levels, with up to 40-fold differences in the level of funding received
  • Some disciplines receive higher JuFo classifications easier than others
  • The Ministry of Education and Culture awards 13 percent of the basic funding of universities according to the JuFo classifications