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I received a fund that I can use explicitly for paying graduate (master's and doctoral) students for research. These students already receive a stipend from the university, but most advisors who can afford it pay them a supplement. My colleagues just pay a fixed amount per month. However, I am inexperienced in advising students, and I fear I might end up wasting the money on students who do not do their job.

So I thought of making the payment contingent on some research-related task. I do not want to make it contingent on actual research results, since the "flow" of results (particularly in my field - theoretical computer science) is not constant, and the students need a reliable source of income. Instead, I thought of paying the students for reading and summarizing papers and books related to their research topic (up to the maximum amount I can pay per month). There are several reasons:

  • Reading is an important part of research.
  • Most fresh graduate students do not read enough - they prefer to program. They need an incentive to start reading.
  • Reading is a relatively "stable" activity: by putting a sufficient amount of effort, the student can guarantee a fixed income for themselves.
  • Summarizing research papers will help the students once they start writing their own papers.
  • The summaries can also be useful for me during teaching, as supplementary material for the students.

Is it reasonable to pay research students based on reading & summarizing papers, or for other activities?

Clarifications:

  • The basic income (before the supplement) may or may not be enough to live on. For students who come straight for undergrad, many are young and still live with their parents. During undergraduate studies they had to pay tuition, so the very fact that they now study for free (even before receiving any money) is a substantial upgrade for them. Other students are older and have children; for them, the basic income paid by the university may be insufficient.
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    Are there laws that bind you in this? Worth a look. – Buffy Jul 28 at 15:04
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    "I fear I might ending up wasting the money on students who do not do the job". Every manager has the same problem, yet most people in my part of the world receive the same income regurarly. What do they do differently? – user111388 Jul 28 at 15:33
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    If my PI were to pay me with this scheme, IMO tho whole joy of reading literature would pretty quickly die out: think about that "I need to read this article to feed myself". Is this a good or sensible motivation? – onurcanbkts Jul 28 at 15:55
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    This sounds like an X-Y problem to me. Consider making a new question with more details about your concerns about the students, leaving out your idea for a financial-oriented solution. – usul Jul 29 at 6:37
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – cag51 Jul 31 at 4:39
151

Do not do this. At best, you will appear merely stingy; at worst, perhaps financially abusive. (I also suspect your university would not even allow it, but I think that's not as important because it should not be done anyways)

I strongly, strongly advise you to reconsider how you think about students. It seems you are thinking about them like employees you want to squeeze some work out of, with some sort of benefit that you deserve for providing funds. This thinking is wrong, and leads to many of the student horror stories here about abusive advisors.

A student should never be under threat that their financial security is subject to the whims of their supervisor on a regular basis. Any process that leads to a student getting paid less than their full salary* should be a structured process with warning and opportunity for improvement. You write that "students need a reliable source of income" - exactly, so don't make it unreliable.

Students in research are not mere employees, they are future researchers for whom you are taking on a responsibility as an advisor. You pay students so that they can focus on their research and education. You pay students who you think have good potential as researchers that are worthy of your time investment. You are not paying them to do a job, you are paying them to learn.

If you think you need to add incentive for students to focus on things like reading, do that incentivizing outside of the regular compensation structure. One option is to have regular meetings where students present papers or literature reviews of a subset of papers. Students are typically quite motivated in that setting to look good in front of their superiors and peers and they will put in the effort. You could also use a bit of peer pressure to offer some sort of group reward, like buying lunch for the whole group when a student wants to schedule a presentation over lunch to summarize what they have read (harder to do now during pandemic times, but hopefully that won't be permanent).

I'm glad you've asked about this here before implementing it, because I cannot stress enough how bad this would be.

*Exceptions: for someone who is a part-time employee, like an undergraduate student, there is nothing wrong with hourly compensation, but it should not be based on production but rather on time worked. You can decide at the end of a semester if it's worth taking that student for another semester. There could be graduate students in special circumstances that work and study part-time; they should be paid a salary relative to their part-time level of commitment.

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    Not only are students not employees (which I heartily agree with), but almost no professional employees would be paid in a piece work manner like this in a successful company in the modern world. – Ian Sudbery Jul 28 at 16:46
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    @IanSudbery There are a few (which fits in your 'almost no'); writers and freelancing jobs in the arts come to mind, as well as the broader "gig economy". Rarely but occasionally in tech, mostly in the developing world. But I think it's a pretty simple argument to make that in most cases these schemes are exploitative of workers, especially when there is a single source for the income, it just turns into bypassing legal obligations to employees. – Bryan Krause Jul 28 at 16:56
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    I also wouldn't call those people "employees" and if their (not) employers did so, they would be in legal hot water. – Ian Sudbery Jul 28 at 16:59
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    I think you got that wrong, students who get paid to do research certainly are employees, during the e.g. 10 hrs/wk for which they are hired. – Karl Jul 29 at 10:26
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    Regardless of the legal definitions the research students are not employees in the industrial sense -- industrial employees provide financial benefit to their employers, keeping them productive is a matter of bargaining. Financial incentive in OP's case should be aimed towards helping students free more time for research as opposed to spending potential research time working an irrelevant side job to make ends meet. +1 on OP reconsidering how to think about students – Layman Jul 30 at 14:26
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Not a good idea, and here's a take from a behavioral point of view, taken from this article

In Haifa, Israel, there were a bunch of day care centers, about a dozen of them, and the kids came in the morning and the parents picked them up in the evening. And as is the case, some parents came late. And they decided that they were going to impose a fine on the parents coming late. Well, happily for economic science, a couple of behavioral economists knew about it, and so they said, now, wait, wait, wait. Let's just do it on half of the day care centers and not do it on the other half so we have a nice experiment. So, sure enough, one day, the parents came, dropped off their kids and there was a notice. It said, starting tomorrow, anyone who's picking up their kid more than 10 minutes late will be fined 10 Israeli shekels. And then they recorded. They had been recording what was happening in the week before, and then they recorded how many people came late in the day care centers which had the fine and those where there was no fine. It was amazing what happened. In the places where there was no fine, nothing happened. It continued. There was actually a small number. In the ones in which the fine was imposed on the parents coming late, the amount of lateness doubled - doubled.

Now what - how can you possibly explain that? The fine was supposed to get them to come on time to pick up their kids. Now, if you think about it, there are lots of possible interpretations of what happened. But what you just said, Shanker, about framing seems to be the most likely explanation, which is the parents framed coming late or coming early to pick up their kids as essentially a moral question. I mean, perhaps not high morals, but you ought to pick up your kid on time because your kid might be anxious, because the teachers maybe want to go home and be with their kids or there's something like that. OK. Sometimes there is extra traffic, and you're late. But it was a moral question. As soon as you put a price on it, then it's just like a commodity. It's a shirt or a beer. Step right up. You want to get some lateness, here's where you can get it. It'll only cost 10 Israeli shekels. So I think they turned this thing from an ethical problem into more or less a self-interest problem. And, apparently, 10 Israeli shekels wasn't a big enough fine to really cause them to do anything differently.

The core idea is that, if something that is supposed to be done because it is the right/good thing to do, is incentivized with money, then it starts to become a commodity, and loses its original purpose. Feeling like you've got enough money this month and don't like to read? Just don't read and don't get paid, nothing wrong.

Motivating students to read should come from the actual value of doing it, like what you have mentioned in your post: that reading papers and summarizing them is useful. So, I believe it's better to have the funding be paid consistently, and not prorated based on the number of tasks they did.

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    As a counterexample, I'll mention plastic bag "bans" that have been implemented in many places. By charging a nominal fee (typically 5-10 cents) for each plastic bag used, many places have seen a marked decrease in usage. This seems like a successful implementation of commodifying the environmental/moral issue of sustainability, with the exact opposite result as the daycare example. I generally agree with you that the OP's proposed system is a bad idea, but providing monetary reward for moral choices can in fact be effective. – Nuclear Hoagie Jul 30 at 14:46
  • For other readers, 10 shekels is about $3 ... so a very small fine – Azor Ahai -him- Jul 30 at 15:03
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    @Matt The bag fee is an external indicator that bags are bad, which was enough to change people's behavior - it's not about the money, it's about doing the right thing. The daycare fee is also an external indicator that lateness is bad, and also is a pittance - it's also not about the money, but it didn't get people to do the right thing. They're opposite outcomes from the same incentive structure, so I don't see how both can be supportive of this answer. We have one scenario where the incentive worked, and another where it didn't, but this answer just suggests they don't work. – Nuclear Hoagie Jul 30 at 17:17
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    Thank you Nuclear Wang for the counter-example! Definitely human behavior is a complex thing. I guess it depends on when the decisions are made. In the plastic bag case, it is quite simple to just bring your own bag before going for groceries. For the parents being late case, surely they were late because they were doing something else. With the incentive, they could think to themselves, "Well, I could still finish this thing a bit more, then later pay a small fee for being late." So I guess it also depends on how important it is the other thing that prevents the good thing from happening. – justhalf Jul 31 at 6:10
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    @NuclearWang I think the issue with bags is that (at least where I am, in the UK) it didn't go from single-use bags being discouraged, but not charged for, to being discouraged and charged for. They went from practically being encouraged to being discouraged. I suspect the main reason the bag charge was effective was that it forced shops to change their practices in this regard. – Especially Lime Jul 31 at 10:47
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Beware of setting targets. If you set a target, and an incentive for reaching it, then meeting that target becomes the most important thing.

Graduate students should be doing research, writing papers and writing their thesis, in addition to the background reading.

But if you pay them to read papers and write summaries, then that becomes the most important thing. Other activities can, and will, be left until their target for reading and summaries has been met.

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In theory it sounds fine, but I think you will encounter a number of practical problems.

By paying for summaries you are incentivizing students to skim the paper and whip up a summary with minimal effort. I'll go ahead and assume your students are not so unethical as to hand you fake summaries, but I think it's evident that you will need to define quality guidelines for the summaries to "count". But if you do so, you will then have to verify the summaries to make sure they are of sufficient quality. It's not impossible and I have successfully done somewhat similar things, but it requires setting up a sophisticated system beyond just paying per summary. All that just to get the student to read... The student came to you because they have confidence in your mentorship. Can't you just talk to them and ask them to please read the damn things by next monday?

Moreover, I am a bit skeptical that money is a strong motivator for your students. If they cared about optimizing income, they would have gotten much higher paying industry jobs (especially in your field). Even if money has significance to them in a career sense, like any young student they are probably focusing on getting their career started so they can do well later rather than chasing pennies now. Often the feedback from advisor and the thought that their future career prospects are improving is a better motivator. Not like those are excluded by you paying them extra for writing papers, but you shouldn't get distracted from a big thing by focusing on a minor thing. Concerns about micromanaging aside, if you believe reading and summarizing papers is important you can simply require students to do it, rather than giving an option to skip it and getting paid slightly less. Maybe you could ask for a 5 or 10 minute presentation of the paper at every meeting? That would also help them practice presentation skills and disseminate the content to other members of your group.

Beyond this, you also risk inviting a disproportionately negative response from both your colleagues and the students. See for example the other answer - people in academia do not like this kind of incentive based scheme, they prefer to be paid anyway and have freedom to do their work as they see fit. Even if you had a system that was somewhat effective, you could have so much resistance that it negates any benefits. On the same note, because in academia you are rarely incentivized in this way (even publish or perish tends to take the form of gating at the application stage or annual quotas, not pay-per-work) so in a sense you are wasting the student's time by teaching them a way of working that is unlikely to translate into their future career.

As a tangent, learning to read and summarize papers quickly is an important skill for researchers. But if you want to teach this the "hard way", it may be more practical to simply limit the time they have to do it ("here's a paper, write me a summary by the end of the day"). Their first few attempts will probably not go well, but once they get a chance to experience and reflect on why they fail to do it quickly, you can start teaching them how to overcome those problems. While it may sound harsh, nothing stops you from being as nice about it as you want, such as asking the student to schedule some time for this in advance ("can you find a day this week where you have 1-2 hours for our paper skimming exercise?"), being encouraging, telling them that it's okay to not be able to finish in time and this is just a learning exercise, etc.

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  • Keeping such a system up is going to cost so much in overhead alone that the feasibility drops the more complete you want to keep it. – Mast Jul 30 at 9:47
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    To me it does not sound fine in theory. – user111388 Jul 30 at 14:39
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The other answers cover a lot of different perspectives which are quite important. I am not in academia any more but I have always closely watched the related issues.

Firstly, try to understand, why the funding agency is funding you? What are their vision and specific purpose of this fund? Is it to help you as a new early-career researcher or is it to help you help the students? It seems like it is for the later.

When a fund is being utilized all stakeholders would like to see a tangible result at the end. Students must have learnt something, you must have achieved a research objective and the funding agency must have seen a positive outcome towards realizing their vision.

With this broad guideline, if it suits you, you could try to make decisions. The other answers seem to be from academicians and are at a more micro level.

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  • The goal of the funding agency, as far as I see, is to get the research done. I am trying to think what is the most effective way to attain this goal. – Erel Segal-Halevi Jul 30 at 19:14
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I'll provide a meta-answer for your question. I believe you are facing this dilemma due to a combination of several factors, with the most important being the following:

  1. Your academic institute at Ariel is in a legal twilight zone - the Israel-occupied Palestinian west bank; and is itself not a regular part of the Israeli academic system (e.g. the Israeli Council for Higher Education), so employment conditions overall have some aspect an "anything goes in the wild west". (Even the question of whether it's a college or a university is a subject of political debate.)

  2. Junior researchers are (AFAIK) not unionized at Ariel college/university, nor in Israeli universities proper. The academic staff unions threw them out in the 1970s, and the universities degraded them from full-time academic employees to being only employed in teaching and receiving soft money in all sorts of ways for research. A description of this process at the Technion can be found in my chapter in the book on "Wrongful employment" (העסקה פוגענית); available online ; see chapter 16. Over The current unionization picture is that junior academics are mostly unionized as teachers, but those unions avert their eyes when it comes to research work.

    Had your employees - and they are employees, even if they're also students - been unionized, you would not have had the prerogative of choosing how to employ them: It would have been in basically the same format and under the same conditions as everywhere else.

  3. The Israeli labor courts - who are infamous in their bias in favor of employers - have a checkered and inconsistent history of ruling about employer-employee status of people who perform useful work in relation of, as part of, or during their studies, or as a condition for being recognized with some academic degree. If you try to extract a consistent line of reasoning, all of them should be employees; but the courts often don't rule that way, contradicting earlier precedent. This also means they have never tried to shape a consistent doctrine for the status and rights of "not-quite-employee student-workers" - despite supposedly recognizing the existence of this category. So you are without a legal yardstick even ignoring the question of occupied territories vs Israel per se.

  4. Perhaps this goes without saying, but - lack of oversight w.r.t. employment practices and their ethics, by the funding bodies.

As for what you should do: You should pay junior researchers as you yourself are paid - by hour (or an FTE-fragment) spent doing research-related activity. That includes reading, and summarizing papers (assuming you find that to be a useful part of the research process), and writing, and probably just sitting at the office scratching one's head thinking of abstract problems. Of course, they're not quite like you in that they're not independent researchers and are supposed to be guided by you, including in the allocation of their work time to some extent - but you (ethically) cannot condition their payment on their research achievements. An exception is prize/bonus money, over the basic guaranteed wage - which you yourself may be competing for as a senior academic staff member; although, frankly, I'm not a big fan of that either.

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  • "An exception is prize/bonus money, over the basic guaranteed wage " - actually, this is exactly what I meant to do - the students already get a basic income from the university. The grant money is extra. – Erel Segal-Halevi Jul 30 at 19:24
  • "Even the question of whether it's a college or a university is a subject of political debate" - Legally it is a university. The fact that some politicians do not like it, is totally irrelevant from a legal perspective. It is irrelevant just like the fact that some capitalist politicians do not like the laws of worker rights and think that these laws harm the economy. – Erel Segal-Halevi Jul 30 at 20:07
  • The political issue you mentioned in 1 is irrelevant, as you note later in 2,3,4. Indeed, students in all universities in Israel are not considered workers - they are considered customers. Formally, they have to pay a tuition for the right to study. The universities usually waive this tuition and pay them a monthly allowance, but I can see why they claim it is not a salary. Students take much more time and effort to guide than usual workers; they leave after two years (masters), go to work in the industry and earn 3 times their professors. Viewing this as "abuse" ignores the bigger picture. – Erel Segal-Halevi Jul 30 at 20:11
  • I recall, when I started my M.Sc. studies in the Technion, and was told that I am going to get 5000 ILS per month just for studying (not including a salary for being a teaching assistant), I felt that I am abusing the university - I receive money for studying, while in many other universities in the world, the students must pay to study for an MA degree. – Erel Segal-Halevi Jul 30 at 23:26
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    @ErelSegal-Halevi: 1. Well, you didn't receive money for studying. You had a set of obligations which are those of an employee. Students who just study at their leisure don't get paid. You received money for engaging in research - which involves a lot of studying. And the Technion receives a lot of its money, in turn, to conduct that research which relies on M.Sc. and Ph.D. candidates to a great extent. 2. Irrespective of that: Charging students tuition is a cruel, abominable practice which should have been abolished long ago for university-level studies just like it had been for K12 studies. – einpoklum Jul 30 at 23:47
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I'm going to detract from the other walls of text here and suggest that it may be worthwhile to use financial incentives to encourage participation (though by grad school a student should be self-motivated) - provided you establish a minimum baseline and use the incentives as bonus.

Just be careful as this is arguably a power dynamic which may be abused. It depends critically on your good faith.

I wasn't paid during grad school; students aren't entitled to this money, unless things are different where you are, though it may make studying easier for some. If you're having problems with unmotivated students, as you allude, then this may be a viable option, if unorthodox.

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  • OP seems to assume that the students are already properly compensated for their work and life costs, and this extra money is just an additional prize for performance. If so, I don't see anything particularly bad in paying for something like reading and summarising papers, which can be useful and easy to assess. What would be bad is paying for some arbitrary result, like getting something published in a journal: such prizes cause all sorts of issues in China and India. Consider paying to put the summaries in cc-by-sa in some place like Wikipedia or pubpeer where they're useful and reviewed. – Nemo Jul 31 at 8:09
  • I agree that there should be a guaranteed baseline, so that the student does not have to worry about necessities. – Erel Segal-Halevi Aug 1 at 19:52
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Beside the legal and psychological perspectives, this is contrary to how an efficient labor market works. (Although in many circumstances, in reality you do get labor markets which allow for this kind of contract due to the concentration of power) You seem to want freelancers, not employees - or worse, to have somebody enter a contract which combines all the downsides of being an employee with all the downsides of being a freelancer, while you have your cake and eat it too.

In a employer-employee situation, it is the employer who bears the financial risks. The employee gets a lower payment than a freelancer, and has a secure income. They are not involved in the enterprise's losses (or success). They are being paid for turning up and doing work, no matter what the result.

In a freelancer-client situation, the freelancer functions as a one-person enterprise, and thus bears the risks of business. You contract with an enterpreneur not for a volume of their worktime, but for achieving a result, and pay for it. Accordingly, it is up to the enterpreneur to manage all financial and complexity risks connected to the project. In some countries, this is even embedded in the legal system (Arbeitsvertrag vs. Werkvertrag in Germany).

Obviously, nobody wants to bear a risk. Just the possibility of making a win if things turn out easier than expected is not sufficient to weigh up for the potential losses. It is you who wants the result, and it is your risk that somebody sitting with a paper may not produce the results you wanted. If you want somebody else to bear that risk, you have to pay for it - in practice, this functions through freelancer rates being much higher than employees'. (I am handwaving here a bit about real life complexity - in today's regulated labor markets, there are of course other factors behind freelancers' higher rates, such as health insurance rates. But you'll note they also tend to be connected to bearing a risk). So, if you want to not bear the risk of "when my instructions were followed, the result turned out to be not useful for me, or was not ready in the expected time", you have to 1) find the kind of person who is willing to bear that risk (and so appears on the labor market as a freelancer, not as an employee) and 2) pay market rates for it.

There is a second risk you want to guard against - a lazy student. The economic way to state it is that in a situation of incomplete information, Adam Smith's theory of perfectly efficient markets doesn't hold, and you are in a classic principal-agent theory. This is not something solvable by forcing result-only contracts on people who apply as employees, first because it has the side effect of transferring other, very large risks wihtout a payment, and second because of all the non-economic reasons covered in the other answers. The way it works is by trust. You first hire a student whom your instincts qualify as trustworthy, then you wait for the execution of tasks, and if you realize that the student has been taking your money without spending any time working, you fire them. If you want the theoretical perspective, this is also borne out by game theory - it roughly corresponds to the tit-for-tat strategy in multi-round prisoner's dilemma (which is an optimal strategy). Without the theory, this is how millions of employers and employees solve it every day.

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  • "you have to pay market rates for it"..in today's student market, you might find some desperate enough to not have to pay appropriate market rates.. – user111388 Jul 31 at 10:57
  • @user111388 yes indeed, I was describing the mechanisms that are prevalent in a market equilibrium - but not every single individuum will want to decide in line with these mechanisms. It is always possible to find single individuals who agree to a contract that is economically detrimental to them, for a variety of reasons, but the side effects of employing them under these conditions can easily outweigh the economic gain. To state it simply, on any market, if you offer below market rate, you get low quality. On the labor market, you also get low loyalty and motivation, which tends to lead... – rumtscho Jul 31 at 11:24
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    ... to exactly the problems the OP is trying to avoid. Even if you can find, say, smart and desperate students, do you really want a desperate person working on your paper summary, with half a brain reading, and half a brain worrying if they will make rent this month? Or if you find smart and low-self-confidence students who think it's fair to have the risk put on their shoulders without extra payment, you'll have a team of people with impostor syndrome and all other problems correlating to low confidence. Add the motivation problems from paid-per-piece work, and forget any productivity. – rumtscho Jul 31 at 11:29
  • Unfortunately, many (even good!) students are very desperate and do keep up with even abusive advisors just for the vague idea that they could on some day work as a professor. – user111388 Jul 31 at 11:34
  • What risk is there in an assignment of reading and summarizing a paper? It's not that I pay them only if I find the paper interesting / useful. They know in advance exactly what they should do to get paid - there is no uncertainty for them. – Erel Segal-Halevi Jul 31 at 11:36

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