Metrics survey reveals widespread scepticism

There is widespread ‘scepticism’ about the use of metrics to assess research, according to evidence submitted to an independent review

November 5, 2014

Just one fifth of those who gave evidence to the Higher Education Funding Council for England’s inquiry supported the increased use of metrics, such as citation data, when determining the excellence of research.

Many raised concerns that metrics “unfairly disadvantage” the arts, humanities and social sciences.

David Willetts, the former universities and science minister, launched a review in April to explore the role that metrics could play in judging research quality. The following month Hefce called for evidence from the higher education sector about the use of these indicators.

It received more than 150 responses from universities, individuals, learned societies, providers and mission groups.

A quarter of the respondents expressed ambivalence about the use of metrics. Many of those who supported or were ambivalent about metrics said that they could enhance the research assessment process by making it easier to establish a common understanding of what research is across disciplines, for example.

But others worried that they could not be used to assess research in some disciplines, giving specific subject examples of law, English literature, nursing and criminology. A small number of respondents added that metrics could unfairly disadvantage interdisciplinary research.

Sceptics said that metrics could never replace peer review and even many of those supportive of metrics believed that they should be used to support peer reviewers’ judgements.

“Many responses argued that changes should only be made to the established methods for research assessment where they could be demonstrated to provide improvement,” said a document summarising the evidence published by Hefce on 5 November.

Other concerns expressed by respondents included the robustness of current metrics, with some raising the fact that academic work can be highly cited if it is controversial or if the author cites his or herself frequently.

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