The metrics scale

January 14, 2016

It is pleasing that Jonathan Grant makes such a robust defence of quality-related funding and also highlights that the research excellence framework is a relatively inexpensive way of allocating this component of dual funding, if we are to have an accountable audit system (“Move to metrics may not bring significant savings to REF bill”, Opinion, 7 January).

However, Grant significantly overestimates the savings that could be achieved by a metricised approach when he sets “aside £4 million for their central generation and management”.

This is because it is not clear that these metrics would be generated and managed centrally. It is more likely that they would be outsourced to one of the only two entities in possession of a sufficiently large-scale metrics database: Thomson Reuters or Elsevier. Indeed, the minister for universities, Jo Johnson, met with Elsevier on 4 November in the same week that the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills put out a tender for “robust citation data relating to institutions’ research outputs in the period 2008-2014”.

In such a circumstance, every institution would have to subscribe to packages of metrics data from the REF supplier to benchmark institutional performance. Because this “market” is actually a duopoly, there will be little or no downward price pressure. Costs at the institutional level will spiral.

However, this should all be irrelevant. Peter Darroch, senior product manager, research metrics at Elsevier, of all places, wrote in August 2015 that “quantitative data inform, but do not and should not ever replace, peer review judgments of research quality – whether in the REF, or for any other purpose”. Whether this is “simplistic”, as Grant puts it, or not, this represents a public agreement with the Wilsdon report by the largest player in the metrics game.

Martin Paul Eve
Senior lecturer in literature, technology and publishing
Birkbeck, University of London

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