ISU Department: "Evaluation of research ability is based primarily upon published papers in refereed journals" - Evolution News & Views

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ISU Department: "Evaluation of research ability is based primarily upon published papers in refereed journals"

There has been much unfounded speculation this week about the specific standards governing astronomer Guillermo Gonzalez's application for tenure at Iowa State University. Some have claimed, for example, that outside research grants must be a primary criterion for tenure at ISU. Unfortunately, the specific tenure and promotion standards adopted by the Department of Physics and Astronomy at ISU have not been available online. So we have decided to make them available for download here so that people can read the standards for themselves. These standards make clear that the key criterion for research excellence in Dr. Gonzalez's department is the number of refereed papers, not the level of outside funding:

Evaluation of research ability is based primarily upon published papers in refereed journals.... (p. 4)

As for how many published papers are required to demonstrate the "excellence" in research needed for promotion to associate professor with tenure, the standards are clear about the "typical" case:

For promotion to associate professor, excellence sufficient to lead to a national or international reputation is required and would ordinarily be shown by the publication of approximately fifteen papers of good quality in refereed journals.

Dr. Gonzalez, of course, has published 68 refereed articles in peer-reviewed journals, exceeding the normal standard of his department by 350%! Significantly, nowhere do his departmental standards even mention outside research grants as a criterion for promotion or tenure.

This would seem to suggest that research funding could not have been a determinative factor in Dr. Gonzalez's tenure application. If it was, then his department would have been guilty of ignoring its own published standards and substituting a new ad hoc standard in order to deny his application. If Dr. Gonzalez's department based its decision on a standard not mentioned in its published criteria, then the decision to deny him tenure would raise important due process and fairness questions. It also would raise the question of why: Why would his department go outside of its official standards? Coming up with ad hoc standards to penalize someone when that person has met the regular standards is a classic technique employed to cover up discrimination.

I should emphasize that since the details of Dr. Gonzalez's tenure appeal are currently confidential, I am discussing hypothetical scenarios here. Those who have speculated that research funding may have played a role in the Gonzalez decision do not actually know whether this was the case.

What is known is that Dr. Gonzalez clearly exceeded his department's stated criterion for research excellence: He has published far more than his department's usual benchmark for refereed articles, his work has been featured in top-line science journals such as Science and Nature, his articles have been widely cited by other scholars, and he even has co-authored a college astronomy textbook published by Cambridge University Press.

This new revelation that his department had no stated requirement for outside research funding adds to the likelihood that his denial was made on improper grounds--either through the direct violation of his academic freedom and free speech rights, or through the application of ad hoc standards outside the stated criteria in order to find a pretext for removing him.