Don't have a cow over this cattle market

January 28, 2005

Stay calm and remember that a bad review can't kill you, says Susan Bassnett

I've noticed something about CVs lately: many people are starting to flag up publications that they intend to submit for the next Research Assessment Exercise. Highlighted in bold is the year 2008, which shows the emphasis already being placed on it.

Many people seem genuinely alarmed by the prospect of the forthcoming RAE, seeing it as some kind of scary hurdle that they might fail to clear. Others have been organising their working lives around their prospective submissions. One or two say they think they will leave academia before the deadline because they can't face the prospect of negative judgement.

I'm not a fan of the RAE. I thought it was a good idea when it first started, but it has since degenerated into a cattle market full of spurious buyers and sellers. It creates so much anxiety among colleagues, particularly younger ones, that I think it should be scrapped.

Nevertheless, it is set to happen again soon, so I have to resign myself to the inevitable. But how can you minimise the anxiety it causes?

Get the RAE business into perspective. University leaders have no illusions. They know it's an exercise in public accountability, the objective being hard cash rewards, and they know its flaws. Yet despite the myths, it is far less stress-inducing than an Ofsted inspection, and the bottom line is that you show what it is that you have been working on to your peers. This is nothing unusual. You have to show your work to other people all the time, from your PhD examiner to potential funders. Sometimes the feedback is good, at other times terrible, but nobody ever died from a bad review.

The second point to focus on is how preparation for the RAE might be helpful. That doesn't mean trying to second-guess how your work will be evaluated. It means looking holistically at how your work fits together coherently. Is your research area too narrow, for example? Have you been using a scattergun approach, sending pieces out all over the place without thinking about how best to place your work for maximum impact in your field? Would you benefit from collaborating with other people, or, conversely, should you start thinking about going it alone?

Don't be railroaded into doing research you are not fully committed to, just for the sake of publishing something. Nor it is wise to give up a project dear to your heart just because someone has suggested that it might not be a 5* idea. Ideally, your work will be published in the best outlets, but sometimes unusual, experimental or radically innovative research can only find a publisher outside the mainstream. Remember, the RAE is not the definitive marker of anybody's quality, and if a top publisher won't touch something you believe will make a difference, go for an alternative, always provided you don't have to pay them for the privilege. Your research may well be valuable for years after much of the RAE is forgotten.

Remember, too, that assessment is subjective. No matter how much talk there is about objectivity, peer reviewing, expert advice and so on, there will always be a subjective factor in all of it. I served as judge on the Times -Spender Foundation poetry translation prize last autumn, and although the panel agreed on the winners, there was considerable variation of opinion. One size does not fit all, and one person's idea of top quality may be based on criteria that someone else disagrees with. Trust your own subjectivity, provided you've sought the views of people who can give honest feedback; your idea of quality research may prevail. Above all, stay calm. Let managers do the worrying, and focus on work that you enjoy.

Susan Bassnett is professor at the Centre for Translation and Comparative Cultural Studies, Warwick University.

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