Not picking up good citations

The prospect of another research assessment exercise will lead only to discord, says Gloria Monday

May 27, 2008

We have just had a meeting to discuss the next research assessment exercise. No sooner have we sent in the 2007 return than we are being exhorted to prepare for the next one. It is supposed to be quite different from past RAEs, and will even have a different acronym, which I forgot as soon as I saw it. I went unwillingly, having been ordered to represent the department and report back on what was in the pipeline. Wee Tommie, our wild-haired registrar, was in the driving seat with one of his interminable PowerPoint presentations, although I think even he was a bit sceptical about the whole business. I’ve never given him any credit for having a sense of humour, but I swear he made a stab at a joke yesterday. When he’d told us all that we had to start preparing now for the 2013 exercise, I commented that some of us might well be dead by then, and I swear he muttered “Chance would be a fine thing” under his breath.

So there we were, being given the old guff about how the next research framework would significantly reduce the administrative burden on universities. My mate Ben the physicist asked why, if that was the intention, were we having to start holding meetings five years before the deadline, and said that it didn’t feel like a significant lightening of his admin load, but Wee Tommie muttered about how all top-ranking institutions needed to be prepared if we were to keep our competitive edge. “What competitive edge?” I asked, given that we are some way down all the league tables, but I was ignored even though I asked it more loudly the second time around and quite a few people said “Hear, hear” and banged on the table.

What we really all wanted to know was what the 2013 exercise is actually going to be like. The 2007 RAE was supposed to be an improvement on previous ones, although somehow the improvements passed us all by. Bibliometrics is the new buzzword for 2013 – we’re not just going to be peer-reviewed, the quality of our research is going to be calculated according to some mathematical models being drawn up somewhere that might include the number of times our names are cited by other people. Big D., our VC, sent a circular round last term telling us that we actually had managed to produce one highly cited researcher in our institution. The fact that the man can’t teach for toffee and ponces around the place like a fading film star on the fringes of Cannes (he has pastel-coloured hankies sticking out of his jacket pocket, for heaven’s sake!) doesn’t seem to matter. He is Highly Cited and Therefore Worthy of Our Admiration.

We all talked about how you come to be highly cited and what it actually means. The scientists seemed to have some idea that it meant getting an article in a journal like Nature or winning the Nobel prize or the Fields Medal, but we haven’t got anything like that in the arts, we just publish in obscure specialist journals and write books that never sell more than a few hundred copies. I said probably the most highly cited historians were writers like Catherine Cookson, but Wee Tommie just wagged a finger at me and accused me of being frivolous and mischievous. Then Ben said what he was more interested in was the puzzling phrase in one of Wee Tommie’s slides stating that one of the aims of the next RAE or whatever it’s called by then is “to avoid creating any undesirable behavioural incentives”.

We spent the rest of the meeting discussing that. We started with trying to rewrite it in plain English. What is a behavioural incentive, for a start, and how might whatever one is be undesirable? Wee Tommie tried to bring us to order by going on about the ways in which unscrupulous universities had tried to poach people from their competitors by offering inflated salaries while others had tried to bury research-inactive staff and turn them all into teaching fellows overnight. But that’s exactly what we’ve done, we all chorused, and everybody started giving examples from their own neck of the woods. It’s what everybody does, I pointed out, and the whole business of peer-reviewing research has been a cattle market for years.

Wee Tommie turned serious and tried to convince us that everything will be different by 2013, universities will all have become as honest as the day is long and ours will indeed be producing world-leading work that will stand up to the robust UK-wide indicators of research excellence. We didn’t believe a word of it, especially since we were then told that our task is to identify “research-lite” colleagues and to start grooming poor young probationers to aim higher. Cattle market may have been an apt term for the 2007 RAE, but it looks as though what’s planned for 2013 will make human trafficking look like a picnic.

Gloria Monday is a mid-career historian employed in one of the many universities with aspirations to international greatness.

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