Entrenching tribalism

April 9, 2009

Robin Hambleton is right to say that the research assessment exercise is myopic ("Scholarship is multifaceted, but the RAE is blind to its richness", 19 March). However, its biggest flaw is its institutional discrimination against multidisciplinary academics.

Each academic can be entered into only one discipline, so publishing in more than one is a waste of time for RAE purposes. In theory, there is a procedure whereby panels can "refer" publications outside their remit to other disciplinary panels, but in reality this is not used. Heads of department know that they have to conform to a narrow definition of identity and that deviations can be punished.

Some subject areas accept a broader range of publications than others, but many panels use the RAE process as a means of shaping their disciplines to conform to a narrow set of prejudices.

It is unlikely that the research excellence framework will improve things. Using the number of citations is a good idea, but the discrimination against multidisciplinary academics will be at least as strong, because each subject will continue to allow submissions from only a narrow range of publications. Multidisciplinary research is being discouraged and disciplinary tribalism is being entrenched.

David Toke, University of Birmingham.

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