Peer review must be at the heart of REF, expert says

Hepi head fears that assessment based on metrics could lead to legal challenges. John Gill reports

July 17, 2008

Human judgment must be the driving force of the new system for assessing the quality of academics' research to avoid legal challenge, an expert has warned.

Bahram Bekhradnia, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute and former director of policy at the Higher Education Funding Council for England, said that peer review should take precedence over the use of statistical indicators in the research excellence framework.

Although the details are yet to be finalised, the REF will use a combination of metrics and peer review to determine the allocation of billions of pounds of research funding. It will replace the research assessment exercise.

Dr Bekhradnia said: "There is a world of difference between a system based on peer review that is informed by quantitative analysis and a system of quantitative analysis that is informed by peer review.

"The critical question is, which is the primary driver? When I was at Hefce and in charge of the RAE we didn't move without getting legal advice about the likely success of any challenge over what we were doing. I would be very surprised if the lawyers didn't advise that you can't have a system based primarily on data, where the results of the metrics could be overturned by the judgments of panels.

"Anyone who found that their scores based on metrics had been lowered would sue, and probably win. But you can have a system based on peer review in which data is among the evidence that is taken into account. There is a really important distinction here that hasn't been clarified."

Speaking in advance of a conference held by the National Conference of University Professors on the future of research funding, Dr Bekhradnia said: "Hefce talks about peer review being light touch, which is admirable and I think we would all like it to be as light touch as possible."

"The trouble is that you have to ask Hefce why, if the RAE is not light touch, that is so. The reason is that what was originally a fairly modest and not particularly onerous process became increasingly sophisticated and complicated precisely to make it fairer and more rigorous.

"So, although I welcome the attempt, I'm rather sceptical about the extent to which it is possible to have a rigorous and fair system that is also light touch."

- University libraries will see 100km of shelf space freed by a £9.8 million scheme to deposit academic journals at the British Library. The money is being provided by the Higher Education Funding Council for England to create the UK Research Reserve, for journals that are used infrequently.

David Eastwood, Hefce chief executive, said that 100km of shelf space would be freed at the end of five years, and capital savings of £29 million would be made for the sector.

john.gill@tsleducation.com.

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