Men against boys

September 27, 2012

Sociologist Robert K. Merton's "Matthew effect" (ie, "the rich get richer and the poor get poorer") leads us to expect top academics to set up a system of evaluation that cements their position. So perhaps it is surprising that the research excellence framework has virtually no concept of academic leadership ... or is it?

Early-career researchers are allowed a discount in terms of the number of outputs that are submitted to the REF on their behalf. But other than this, researchers with, say, five years of experience are put on an equal footing with 35-year veterans: both must submit four outputs that will be rated out of four using the same measures. So researchers who would never be given million-pound grants due to their inexperience handling large projects are compared with those who possess that experience. Researchers only just building up networks are compared with those who know all the editors and have many favours to call in. Researchers on the middle of the pay scale are compared with those at the top. In other words, it is assumed that after five years of being a full-time researcher you have learned everything you need to learn and should be world class - if not, you are failing.

For the REF, then, academics come in one of two forms: early-career researchers and researchers. There is no concept of "late-career" academics. The result is that scholarly leaders have low expectations placed on them while for others the bar is set too high.

In football punditry, the phrase to describe this sort of situation is "men against boys". Of course, in football, men very rarely play against boys - there are different levels so that men are compared with men, and boys of different ages with their contemporaries. (Sorry for the gendered example, it's the way football pundits speak.) The solution for the REF is simple then: expand the "other" category. This could easily be achieved by linking requirements to job titles, reflecting the position of professors as academic leaders. It would also institutionalise a far less stressful life for those who would still be able to over-perform but would not be required to compete against academic leaders without the pay, support, network or tacit knowledge required.

Robert Cluley, University of Nottingham

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