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Science Careers Blog

August 3, 2011

Study: Nepotism Widespread in Italy

Anecdotally, cases of nepotism in Italian academic institutions appear to abound, but just how widespread the phenomenon is has been difficult to pin down. A statistical study published today in PLoS One suggests that nepotistic practices are rampant in Italy, with medicine and industrial engineering among the most inbred disciplines. 

"I often meet other Italian immigrants abroad, and the first 20 minutes of conversation are regularly spent complaining about the state of disarray of academic institutions in Italy," including nepotism, writes the study's author, Stefano Allesina, an Italian researcher who holds an assistant professorship in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Chicago's Computation Institute in Illinois, in an e-mail to Science Careers. So, upon coming across a public database of Italian researchers, Allesina could "not resist the urge of checking if it's really 'a few bad apples' (as the Ministry and other politicians always say) or not," he says.

The database he used, which is available from the Italian Ministry of Education, University and Research, lists the first and last names of the 61,340 or so tenured professors in Italy along with their institutions, departments, and disciplines. A theoretical ecologist, Allesina approached the problem in a way that is "akin to computing how many species of trees we should find in a quadrant given the frequency of the species in a forest," he says. Correcting for natural name distribution in Italy, Allesina asked how many last names one should expect to find in a particular discipline if the names were selected randomly, and compared this number to the real-life number. 

Allesina found "a severe paucity of names," which was most pronounced in engineering, law, medicine, geography, and pedagogy and also in the South of Italy. "The probability that the recruitment was fair is extremely low," Allesina says. Linguistics, demography, and psychology had the lowest probability of nepotistic practices, according to Allesina's analysis.

"What I find surprising is the magnitude of the phenomenon, especially because my analysis provides a gross underestimate of nepotism," Allesina says. Because Italian academic women typically keep their maiden names, his analysis doesn't count cases where spouses are hired by male professors, and instances where women professors hire close relatives, he says. "We are in fact talking carloads of rotten apples."

"Allesina discovered the 'acqua calda' (hot water) as we say in Italy," Pasquale Stano, a young synthetic biologist at the Roma Tre University, writes in an e-mail. "Everyone working in university knows that there are many cases of nepotism in Italian academy." But the study is "important" because "We move from opinions to facts." And facts are more difficult to dispute, Stano says.

Allesina and Stano agree that the consequences of nepotism for young researchers can be harsh. "Nepotistic hires are only the tip of the iceberg. ... Young researchers are left to languish, while older researchers are promoted based on seniority," Allesina says. "However the things are not so simple," Stano warns. Very often, the members of a well-established academic family have better qualifications, more experience, or more publications, "because [they] have had more opportunities in their postdoc career (thanks to the family name and to the influence of the parents). So he/she will legitimately win a position." 

Last December, the Italian Government passed a university reform that prohibits the hiring of close relatives within the same department. But neither scientist believesl that this will fix the problem. Senior professors with power will just make sure their relatives hired at another university, Stano says.

In some disciplines, "nepotism ... certainly hindered many careers and obliged many qualified people to change job or move abroad," writes Luca Leuzzi, a young researcher at the National Research Council's Institute for Chemical and Physical Processes, in an e-mail. But nepotism is just one of many problems faced by young Italian scientists when they're looking for a way in. "The financial cuts to the whole public system have been draconian and without ratiocination, so that no recruitment is practically possible anymore and retired people are not substituted at all."

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