Panel beaters: do RAE judges keep it all in the family?

Analysis spots collegial links between reviewers and top-ranked institutions. Zoe Corbyn writes

March 5, 2009

With about £1.5 billion of research funding as well as reputations at stake, it is perhaps inevitable that there is speculation around the possible prejudices of the research assessment exercise judging panels.

But a new analysis suggests that there may have been a tendency in the 2008 RAE for the reviewers to "reward their own".

A senior academic was moved to contact Times Higher Education after he discovered a high correlation between an institution's performance in the RAE and the number of its academics it had sitting on RAE panels.

The academic, who asked not to be named and who says his study sprang from idle curiosity, found that nearly 90 per cent of the academics who sat in judgment on the 67 RAE subpanels came from the 50 best-performing universities (according to Times Higher Education's Table of Excellence).

Of 851 subpanel chairs and members from universities, 742 (87 per cent) came from the top 50 institutions. Only 109 (13 per cent) came from the remaining 82.

The academic said: "That most of the panel members and chairs are concentrated at the top you might say is obvious. The best research is done at the top, so that is where you choose the panel members from. But if you were a bit more cynical you might say it is the panels rewarding their own."

His view, he said, was that it was "probably a bit of both" and that the latter "might well be" unconscious and unintentional, with experts from a "particular school of thought" influencing panels in certain ways.

Yet it is perhaps the correlations within individual units of assessment, also mapped by the academic, that will most interest scholars.

Many units of assessment show a clear grouping of panel members at the top.

In chemistry, universities in the top half of the Table of Excellence accounted for 13 members while only two panel members came from institutions in the bottom half. In archaeology, all members hailed from institutions in the top nine, and none from the remaining 17 institutions.

In computing science and informatics, eight of the top ten universities had at least one panel member, seven panel members came from the 31 institutions in the middle, and the bottom 40 had no panel members.

The Higher Education Funding Council for England defended the integrity of the process. RAE manager Ed Hughes said: "Since panel members were nominated by professional bodies in their field and were appointed on the basis of their expertise in particular subject areas, it is perhaps not surprising that some of the institutions from which they were drawn performed strongly.

"However, transparent processes were put in place to ensure that conflicts of interest were managed appropriately," he said.

zoe.corbyn@tsleducation.com.

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