Focus on research ‘excellence’ is ‘damaging science’

Instead, researchers should aim for methodological ‘soundness’ rather than ‘flashy claims of superiority’

June 15, 2016
Albert Einstein head made from Lego bricks
Source: Getty

For researchers, it has become impossible to escape from the word “excellence”. The government’s new higher education White Paper uses it 115 times. The word appears 13 times in the review of the UK’s research councils carried out by former Royal Society president Sir Paul Nurse. And a search of the Times Higher Education website shows that it litters multiple stories every week.

But a group of academics say that the ever-increasing need for researchers to show the “excellence” of their work is damaging science.

They argue that academia should instead focus on “soundness” and distribute money more widely across researchers and universities.

The exaltation of “excellence” – most notably by the research excellence framework, which was previously called the research assessment exercise – gives academics “an incentive to inflate your work”, said Martin Paul Eve, professor of literature, technology and publishing at Birkbeck, University of London.

The term lacks meaning because academics are bad at deciding what research is “excellent” and what is merely good, he argued.

Professor Eve is one of five authors of a new paper, “Excellence R Us: university research and the fetishisation of excellence”, currently in submission to a journal, which cites a study that found that when previously accepted papers were resubmitted to journals in a slightly altered form, about 90 per cent were rejected, “in other words, for being insufficiently ‘excellent’ now by journals that had previously decided they were ‘excellent’ enough to enter the literature”.

Even if it is meaningless, an endless focus on “excellence” is far from “harmless”, said Professor Eve.

Experiments that attempt to replicate the findings of previous studies are not seen as “excellent”, he argued, and therefore have lower status – contributing to the current “reproducibility crisis” in science.

The need to appear “excellent” may even encourage fraud by scientists, the paper claims, as “hypercompetition” for career advancement, publication in “top” journals and research grants has increased.

It stresses that it is not against the “pursuit of quality per se” but the concentration of resources on only the “excellent”, which leads to “the intense competition to make it into the top few percent”.

Instead, the paper suggests that money should be distributed more widely, perhaps even by lottery – although it admits that this would be politically tricky.

Nonetheless, Professor Eve said that a shift away from concentrating money on “excellence” might gain traction in government as “research ministers do understand that research is not just big breakthroughs”.

Instead of “excellence”, the research community should instead aim for “soundness”, the paper argues, which stresses whether or not research has “appropriate standards of description, evidence and probity” rather than “flashy claims of superiority”.

This approach has already been adopted by the journal Plos One, which publishes any research that is scientifically sound, “regardless of its perceived novelty or impact”.

But Professor Eve acknowledged that there was a “danger” that too much emphasis on “soundness” could lead to a stream of dull experiments that did little to advance understanding – for example, a study to double check the boiling point of water would be scientifically sound, but useless.

“It’s always going to have to have a balance,” he said.

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