Pianist wants comeback as review hits bum notes

Middlesex fellow faces 'Kafkaesque' scenario over failure to win Follow-on cash. Paul Jump writes

May 10, 2012

A music academic has criticised what she regards as the Arts and Humanities Research Council's "Kafkaesque" refusal to address her complaints about the quality of its peer-review reports.

Mine Dogantan-Dack, a pianist and research fellow in music at Middlesex University, applied last autumn for funding from the council's pilot Follow-on scheme, which was launched in 2010 to help academics maximise the impact of AHRC-funded projects.

Dr Dogantan-Dack proposed to perform a series of public concerts in "prestigious London venues", in which the interpretation of the music would be informed by prior discussion with the audience, whose feedback would also be sought afterwards. However, funding was denied on the basis of two reviews by members of the AHRC's peer- review college.

The reviews said the proposal's impact would be limited outside academia and difficult to "quantify".

One reviewer doubted whether it was "reasonable" to expect concert audiences "to value music research".

Dr Dogantan-Dack said this remark called the rationale for the Follow-on scheme into question. She added that once this and around a dozen "factual and conceptual mistakes" were eliminated from the reviews, there was "nothing left".

However, the scheme's unusual terms permit neither a right of reply to reviewer comments nor resubmission of applications. Dr Dogantan-Dack was also told that the AHRC's standard complaints and appeals route was meant only for complaints about quality of service.

In a letter to the scholar, Rick Rylance, chief executive of the AHRC, said he believed the reviews were "thorough, thoughtful, professional and well-considered". Their "small number of errors" would have been disregarded by the panel that considered her application.

But Dr Dogantan-Dack complained to the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman that the AHRC had chosen to "close ranks" rather than "admit it got it wrong".

The ombudsman responded that it was not its role to assess the quality of peer reviews, but said the reviewers' comments did not strike it as "unreasonable".

Dr Dogantan-Dack has ruled out further legal action on cost grounds. But she insisted that scholars should always be given the right of reply to peer reviews and that funders should be obliged to engage seriously with applicants' objections.

"To just reassert the reviewers' points...is Kafkaesque," she said.

She added that many colleagues had also expressed dissatisfaction with the quality of reviews they had received for AHRC applications.

"However, because the appeals process is long and tiresome, most choose not to appeal: no one holds the AHRC to account," she said.

A spokesman for the AHRC said it treated all complaints and appeals seriously. The Follow-on scheme (17 of the 75 applications to which have been funded) would be reviewed this summer, he added.

He said the guidelines for applicants made clear both the absence of a right of reply and the fact that impact had to be "measurable in the sense of being open to evaluation".

paul.jump@tsleducation.com.

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