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To improve research culture, we must change the way we measure performance

Jo Cresswell explains how universities can support more collaborative cultures by changing the way academics are reviewed, assessed and rewarded

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Dr Joanne Cresswell Coaching
19 Oct 2022
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Research management

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Elsevier helps researchers and healthcare professionals advance science and improve health outcomes for the benefit of society.
Improving research culture at universities

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The UK punches above its weight in research – the Research Excellence Framework (REF) 2021 results showed that more than 80 per cent of submitted research activity was of world-leading or internationally excellent quality.

REF 2021 also demonstrated that “half of the submitted research population are working in environments with elements conducive to producing research of world-leading quality and enabling outstanding impact”. Great news.

So why are there still so many reports of poor research cultures within UK universities? In 2020, the Wellcome Trust commissioned a survey of more than 4,200 researchers on research culture. The results highlighted deep concerns that poor culture was leading to negative impacts on researchers – particularly those earlier in their careers – including poor diversity and inclusivity, competition, lack of job security and loss of talent.

In this article, I draw on my own experience to indicate how universities can support more collaborative cultures within their own institutions by changing the way that professors and senior academics are reviewed, assessed and rewarded.

The context

First, I want to recognise the enormous positive influence of changes to research assessment, including the 2015 Metric Tide report, the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA) and the Stern review of the REF. This move away from impact factors and H-indices is leading institutions to consider a broader range of assessment measures in professorial promotions and review. The requirement for all staff with significant responsibility for research to be included for the REF, along with greater flexibility on the numbers of outputs to be submitted, led to a 46 per cent increase in the number of staff whose work was considered, compared with REF 2014. Arguably, the change in requirements also led to a reduction in gaming the system, although opinion is divided on this.

The issue

However, the REF comes along but once every seven years, and in the UK alone, while cultures are harder to change. Traditionally, professorial promotion and review focused on individual performance, including publications and grant income. This has, in some cases, led to unhealthy competition and pressure on senior academic staff to maximise their own reputation and performance – and not develop others. In the Wellcome review, 78 per cent of respondents agreed that “high levels of competition have created unkind and aggressive research conditions”. Sadly, there are many stories of researchers being dropped from outputs or grants and/or being bullied by principal investigators.

The solution?

As a director of research, I was committed to creating research environments that supported collegiality and researcher development, and I have long proposed an alternative method of promotion and review for senior academic staff.

So how could this work? As researchers create and expand their groups, at least part of academic promotion and review criteria would focus on the output, impact and income performance of their group, plus the measures that the principal investigator (PI) is taking to support and develop individual researchers. This could include the transition from co-authorship to lead authorship (depending on the discipline) on outputs, progression from co-investigator to PI on grant applications and support for developing networks, external collaborations and impact.

Changing the way that performance is measured and assessed ensures that this contribution to others’ development can be recognised, rewarded and, therefore, expanded. Admittedly, this is already happening in some individual institutions; the aim of this article is to open the conversation up and support the expansion of this practice throughout the sector – ideally in consultation with staff representatives, academics at all levels, equity, diversity and inclusion committees and external bodies such as Vitae, Advance HE and Research England.

I want to stress that a great many senior academics support their groups in this way. Conversations with professorial colleagues convince me that many would welcome a system that rewards both individual and group performance – and thus, by its nature, disincentivises competition and bullying.

The benefits

While these proposals cannot fix the wider issues with research and culture in universities, a change to a broader, more relevant and more supportive assessment and reward system has the power to create significant benefits, including: recognition of the many professors who already share credit and support their groups, sometimes to the detriment of themselves; promoting much-needed equity, diversity and inclusion; disincentivising and reducing bullying, plagiarism and unhealthy competition; enhancing innovation and research excellence; retaining and developing talent.

The many different articles and surveys on research culture and academic well-being show that the current system is not sustainable in the longer term. Adverse research cultures and practices are at best hampering academics and at worst damaging the health, well-being and career prospects of some of our greatest emerging and established talent.

So let’s expand the conversation. As we accept that the post-pandemic world is going to be very different, and much less stable than before, we have an opportunity to shake up those old, established practices and create something powerful and inclusive.

Jo Cresswell is coach and mentor at Dr Joanne Cresswell Coaching. She was formerly director of research and knowledge exchange at the University of Salford, UK.

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Research management

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Elsevier helps researchers and healthcare professionals advance science and improve health outcomes for the benefit of society.

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