Beat bitterness with a little of le fairplay

July 16, 2004

Rules regulating peer review are not perfect, but, says Ruth Morse, the French believe they have a solution.

Peer review is flawed, but, like democracy, it is a great deal better than the next best thing. As with so much else, the rules can only be as strong as the society that agrees or the actors who practise them. No legislation can guarantee transparency, fairness, clear guidelines, balancing of competing claims, still less the restitution of historic wrongs - geographical, racial, religious, ethnic, age or gender. Nor can laws or rules produce generosity, especially at the level of judgement about individuals, when we review papers, candidates or assess for fellowships or promotions. The inevitable recourse to numbers gives a spurious objectivity to procedures that rely on judgement, and are themselves the result of the factors whose combination - as well as the factors themselves - may be hard to defend. Inevitably, there are questions of balance.

Though we all know that generosity is cheap, and pays dividends, we all also observe the machinations of resentment, enmity, spite and jealousy. Grants for research, publication and leave, as well as promotion, are unavoidably contentious in any system. Many French schemes attempt to deal with some of these problems by using the "co-efficient", a system of numerically weighting different categories depending on their perceived importance, so that teaching, administration and research might remain constant, but could be differently weighted.

Few French academic applications require candidates to provide references, on the principle that candidates will ask only the well-disposed to write on their behalf. This is perhaps less optimistic than the assumption that referees might be capable of describing and assessing work with which they may not be altogether in sympathy, or about which they have reservations; or perhaps it is simply more cynical about the rhetoric of apparent disinterestedness.

Nor do committees solicit external evaluations themselves. Rather, French peer assessment asks for one or two members of a standing committee to read and report on applications that may contain examples of work. The strengths of insisting that committees themselves look at applications are obvious, and it could be argued that the risk of not having a specialist may be overridden by the advantage of assessment from outside narrow specialisation, capable of the much-sought-after wider perspective. Foreign recognition often counts extra because it appears to offer validation from outside the give-and-take of a national system.

As in every system, how candidates present themselves is crucial. Just as some writers of references acquire reputations for uninflected boosting, so assessors reveal their tastes and commitments, personal and intellectual.

With time, the ability to inflect even a negative report with positive feedback and constructive criticism should become standard. In many systems, increased awareness of historic prejudices has led to more openness. Accurate statistics have helped peers review their reviewing.

What can never be regulated is fair-minded discussion at those moments when too many good candidates must be whittled down to smaller numbers; the competition between specialities and subjects necessitates some degree of horse-trading, which may, over years, even out, but may not benefit those who have been winnowed out in any particular year.

The mysterious influence of certain committee members is universal, as is skill in chairing meetings, another of those crucial factors without which the rules and regulations cannot function. Increasing, and better, advice for the unsuccessful may help palliate defeat and encourage repeated candidatures. It also addresses potential descents into those weaknesses to which our profession is prone: the disappointments that lead to paranoia and bitterness. By the way, the French have a word for the conventions of disinterestedness: le fairplay .

Ruth Morse is professeur des universités at Université Paris VII.

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