16 July 2021

According to Robert Merton’s famous Matthew Effect, academics at the start of their career lack the “currency” of a proven research track record, most often constituted of peer-reviewed journal publications. In a bid to shed some light on how early-career academics might build up research outputs to secure an initial advantage, CREST’s Charl Albertyn and Professor Heidi Prozesky interviewed several leading, early-career researchers who had been awarded a “Y-rating” by the South African National Research Foundation (NRF). The results of this study, which formed part of Charl Albertyn’s MPhil in Science and Technology Studies at CREST, were recently published in the South African Journal of Higher Education, and received subsequent coverage in University World News Africa Edition.

The results of the study reveal several insights from the perspective of South African high-performing, early-career academics. In particular, metrics-driven funding and ranking methods undertaken by the NRF are characterised as important mechanisms for academics to gain visibility and develop collaborative relationships with other academics. However, the same methods are perceived as inhibiting cross-disciplinary research, often incentivising low-quality research, and privileging fields in which peer-reviewed journal articles are the norm, as opposed to fields where artefacts and instruments are routinely produced as research outputs.

Participants in this study also commented on the heavy workload faced by early-career academics, which they found difficult to reconcile with the regular “blocks” of time they required to focus intensively on producing quality research. High-performing early-career academics valued their supervision of students as a mechanism for maximising their work capacity, despite the demands this added to their workload. Furthermore, participants utilised academic-citizenship activities, such as peer-review responsibilities, to better understand the workings of the peer review process, thereby allowing them to tailor their research outputs to the requirements of peer reviewers.

Our identification of strategies such as these, as well as factors that may inhibit academic career performance, are important for early-career academics to understand in navigating their own trajectories towards becoming more established researchers. Additionally, this research hopes to provide a basis for further research on the early stages of the academic career in South Africa.