It's all right for some

January 17, 2008

The current debate on the use of citations for determining future research funding is sad to witness. It raises all that is good and, regrettably, deficient with academic thinking and analysis. Perhaps it was ever thus. What is being proposed is what all governments since the mid-1980s have promoted, namely that research funding should be concentrated in a few elite universities. This may make sense to some who want to pull up the drawbridge behind them and ossify the system. It is a policy that has been promoted by some vice-chancellors, mostly behind closed doors, in the often mistaken belief that their institution would benefit in the short term, irrespective of the long term.

Every successive research assessment exercise since the first crude attempt in 1986 has been intended to concentrate research within a few institutions. It has not done so to the extent that its planners envisaged. Because of the academic honesty of RAE panel members, there have been examples of research excellence in the most unlikely places. This is particularly true of emerging disciplines, where some of the newer universities have excelled. Is this not good for the nation, or should we go back to the range of disciplines that existed in the 1950s?

Now we have the proposed use of actual citations as a basis for determining future funding. This system could not even be used in the majority of units of assessment. However, in those where it could, why has it not been decided to simply rely on the impact factor of journals? After all, to get published in the best journals requires peer review by the best people in the field, which comes for free. The answer is obvious. Actual citations reflect past glories, not recent activity. The use of this measure is clearly designed to reward departments and universities that have a past, irrespective of whether they have a future.

It is therefore clear to some that the current proposals for the research excellence framework are inherently, and deliberately, discriminatory against new universities. Most importantly, they are detrimental to the interests of younger staff and women, who have been appointed in increasing numbers in the past 15 years. Has the policy been equality-impact assessed? I fear not. Meantime, we as academics will go on debating how to measure citations. Nothing changes.

Gerry McKenna, Portrush, Northern Ireland.

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