Letters – 13 December 2018

December 13, 2018

One badly used metric doesn’t spoil the bunch

The recent news story “Dutch double down on shift away from role of metrics in academic careers” (6 December) reports that in a shake-up of how academics are assessed and promoted, the Netherlands will shift away from reliance on citations and journal impact factors and will seek to make it easier for academics to become professors on the basis of their teaching record.

This move is welcome, but it is misguided to move away from metrics entirely. I would suggest that the problem is not with metrics per se, but rather with the specific ones chosen and how they are used.

No one could object to a researcher wanting to supplement their narrative about why they merit a grant or tenure with quantitative information, but they do rightly object to the inappropriate use of metrics. If it is true that chasing citations leads researchers to avoid certain topics, the answer is not to give up on seeking a quantitative understanding of impact but rather to use metrics that capture the different citation rates of various research areas.

Field-weighted citation impact is one such metric. One can speculate about why it was overlooked in favour of simple citation counting, but it is surprising that academics would give up on understanding impact rather than improving their approach.

Dr. Gunn
Via timeshighereducation.com

A single key test

The article “Universities sceptical of ‘national interest’ funding test” (News, 31 October, www.timeshighereducation.com), reports Dan Tehan, Australia’s education minister, as saying: “If you’re asking the Australian taxpayer to fund your research you should be able to articulate how that research will advance the national interest.”

I can scarcely believe this remark. It is unworthy of an education minister to make scientists and scholars hostages of an undisguised populist stance.

A society may well decide not to spend any public money on basic research. However, should it be inclined to fund something that aims exclusively at the generation of knowledge – uninterested in its commercial, let alone national, “usefulness” – the only rightful interest of the taxpayer is that scientists and scholars evaluate their work critically by peer review and perform their work according to the standards of good scientific practice. And, of course, researchers must be ready to explain to the public what they are doing. However, they should neither be forced to undergo a “national interest test” nor to bow to such an act of anti-enlightenment.

Stephan Schröder-Köhne

Leg and legend

An item in The Week in Higher Education (News, 6 December) stated that the figure of Henry VIII over the Great Gate at Trinity College, Cambridge “lost his sword long ago”.

It was actually his sceptre: the orb is in his other hand still. It is dubious whether a window cleaner was responsible for the replacement chair leg, granted that a long ladder might have helped him. (Did he do the deed at night, off duty? Hardly in the daytime.)

In fact, the sceptre has been replaced several times in the past hundred years, and not only with chair legs: a bicycle pump and a toilet brush have done the deed.

The Great Gate was a notorious “night-climbing” activity, by students such as Peter Scott, the naturalist and son of Robert Scott of the Antarctic, and Vivian Fuchs, the polar explorer.

Katie Wales
Cambridge city tour guide

Public points

In his opinion article “University leaders cannot fulfil the role of public intellectual” (22 November), Jeffrey Flier argued that senior leaders could not engage in intellectual discourse by expressing views counter to prevailing opinion because the ensuing reactions could disrupt their ability to fulfil their primary duties.

I always thought that a public intellectual was one who welcomed open debate. A person who makes public statements and is then distressed to receive a hostile response has probably not thought through their statement. Someone who objects to the platform on which the response was hosted has failed to keep up with the structure of “the public”. And someone who complains about discussion and calls it attack and wishes their statements to be taken as wisdom from on high is not a public intellectual but a priest.

Farah Mendlesohn
Stoke on Trent

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