Opinion: On research and timesheets ({{commentsTotal}})

ERR's Marju Himma.
ERR's Marju Himma. Source: Anna Aurelia Minev/ERR

Last week, the word timesheet became a new joke and curse word in connection with the research funding scandal to break in connection with an institute of Tallinn University of Technology (Taltech), but as journalist Marju Himma said in commentary to Vikerraadio, words have power, and the word timesheet will likely end up having an effect on how research work is measured in the future.

For those not up to speed with the story, the word timesheet is in reference to the incident at Taltech to go public last week in which timesheets were used to report [work done by] people who did not actually do research or even know that they were involved in a specific project.

This case, which in its design may not be an isolated incident, wouldn't have ever gone public if daily Postimees' investigative team hadn't spent several months thoroughly working the materials they were sent.

Postimees' journalists deserve to be recognized for their work; their data analysis, interviewing and the way in which they ultimately published their story were all envy-inducing. The press gave this multifaceted story a factually verified and balanced treatment in which all parties involved were granted the opportunity to tell their side of the story.

But let's take a look at the other side of communications regarding this incident — Taltech and the researchers' perspectives.

Shortly after the story was published by Postimees, Taltech invited journalists to a press conference. It was stated right at the beginning of the press conference that it would last a total of 30 minutes. The majority of this 30 minutes was dedicated to speakers talking about the university's success and only mentioned the incident in question in passing.

Evident in responses to journalists' questions was a careful choosing of words, especially when it came to questions that later proved decisive — whether or not Taltech rector Jaak Aaviksoo lied. If you listen carefully, it was asked at the press conference whether the whistleblower in the case presented proof, and the response that no, he didn't. In reality, however, the doctoral student had offered to provide proof at a private meeting with Aaviksoo, but did not do so there.

Taltech went the usual, bury-it direction when it comes to such situations: a committee is being convened to further investigate the matter. Of course, that means that the press will keep an eye on this committee's results, and in the meantime this topic will likely see quite a few followup pieces. This will not be fully buried.

Let's take a look at the other communication aspect of the timesheet issue as well, though — the research community. Understandably, this scandal sparked public and less public discussions alike, as, well, many researchers fill out timesheets. Now the question has arisen whether accusing one [researcher] brands the rest, and whether there are others among them who have done something similar.

Timesheets poor means of measuring research work

So it was stated that yes, this is done, as the problem is systemic in nature and is provoked by the underfunding of research. Some highlighted that it certainly isn't the case that there are people "working" according to timesheets that aren't actually involved in the project at all.

And one thing that almost any researcher who has filled out many timesheets will agree on:  these don't and in fact cannot reflect actual work times and amounts. And for a very simple reason: according to them, work can only be done by the clock.

But this isn't acceptable to a researcher. They work with their heads, and sometimes they figure something out at 3 a.m. that they couldn't in the lab or at their desk at the office — or over the weekend, when, according to the timesheet, one is not allowed to think. A timesheet is a tool for accountants based upon which to pay wages, and verifying that timesheets check out alone does not equate to reviewing actual work done.

The word timesheet has become a bit of a bitter joke, which in its own way will start to creep into future discussions about research funding.

But maybe something good will come of this. For example, maybe it will mean scrutiny of how substantive research work, not fictitious hours marked into a timesheet, can be reviewed.

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Editor: Aili Vahtla



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