Perils of a new kind of peer review

September 4, 2008

It is encouraging to see the research assessment exercise (RAE) subpanel chairs arguing in Times Higher Education that peer review should remain at the heart of any future system of research assessment ("Keep peer review at REF core, chairs warn", 28 August).

The crucial question is, however, what do we mean by peer review? In the present RAE, subject communities retain a degree of involvement in the assessment process at every stage through the discipline-specific subpanels.

These were formed in consultation with subject associations, helped to devise the assessment criteria, are now assessing the published outputs and will collectively produce the final overall assessment of departments. This is genuinely review by one's peers.

The plans for the research excellence framework suggest a far less satisfactory kind of expert review, limited to the assessment of individual outputs, leaving wider judgments and the overall assessment to panels of non-discipline specialists. Such a system will be less closely attuned to the cultures of individual disciplines and so more likely to produce unsafe overall judgments. We will accept it as peer review at our peril.

Greg Walker, Masson professor of English literature University of Edinburgh.

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