Arts academics slate metrics

July 28, 2006

Learned societies warn that losing peer review will affect confidence in the AHRC, reports Anthea Lipsett

The Arts and Humanities Research Council is in serious danger of losing the confidence of the academic community if it insists on finding metrics to replace the research assessment exercise, learned societies warned this week.

In line with Treasury demands, a joint AHRC and Higher Education Funding Council for England group is pushing to establish metrics that could be used to judge arts and humanities research.

The AHRC is understood to be considering a system based solely on metrics with an additional document, which will allow academics to explain their research, replacing traditional peer review. Whatever the group settles on will be used in a parallel "shadow" exercise to the 2008 RAE.

But academics in the arts and humanities say this would not provide as clear an indication of research quality as the present peer review exercise. They fear that the AHRC may try to push through a metrics system in spite of their concerns.

David Wells, treasurer of the Modern Humanities Research Association, warned that the group would lose the confidence of the community if it pushed ahead with a full metrics system.

He said: "You can't just measure quantity and not quality. At the very least, the RAE is done by subject specialists in the field who make informed judgments. I've not heard any serious academic argument in favour of metrics from the arts community.

"People in the arts are suspicious of these statistical processes. Citation indices for the arts were discredited 20 years ago."

Martin Daunton, president of the Royal Historical Society, said:

"There's a danger what's being measured will jeopardise peer review of research. It will be what's being input, namely grants and research support offered by universities, which says little about output quality at the end.

Peer review of outputs is vital."

If quantity is all that counts the result could be "game playing", such as books published in separate chapters, he said. "The whole exercise of measurement is in danger of distorting what we do away from international norms. Short-term measurement will distort long-term projects."

"They can't just make it reflect the 2008 data. A bundle of metrics could correlate with 2008, which creates a benchmark. They should take it from both the 2001 and 2008 (RAEs) to establish a trend," he added.

"We were very unhappy when they announced this panel would be set up by AHRC and Hefce with no transparency about how the members were selected,"

Professor Daunton said. Choosing metrics separately from the social sciences is also problematic for interdisciplinary research, he added.

Bill Brooks, chair of the Council of University Deans of Arts and Humanities, said: "Metrics don't easily translate into our disciplines. If it were exclusively metrics, people would be very concerned. Peer review has to be in there as well, as far as our subjects are concerned."

Philip Esler, AHRC chief executive, said there was no predetermined policy as to whether metrics should replace direct peer review. "This group has only just begun its work and one cannot say, nor is it appropriate to speculate, what its conclusions will be."

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