Countdown to the research assessment exercise: four academics express their reservations.
There appears to be a general feeling that in this research assessment exercise the powers that be have just about got it right. Instead of counting the number of papers published, judgement will be made of the quality of publications. This will be assessed on four publications, the better the quality of the refereed journals carrying the publications, the better the quality of the publication. Journal quality can be judged, so the argument goes, by the citation factor of the journal.
While no one is likely to argue against the view that publication in high level journals such as the Journal of Experimental Psychology shows a high level of technical competence, the distortions of the academic process caused by taking such a simplistic approach are going to lead to a steep academic decline in British psychology. This is because the very act of endorsing only high level journal publications is devaluing other equally important academic activities. Chief among the present casualties are book and chapter writing and book editing.
As an old hand it saddens me that many of my younger colleagues feel unable to devote the year or so that is needed to write a book, because they are under pressure to get money in and send off the requisite number of articles. It saddens me because not only is it going ultimately to damage the careers of individuals as influential psychologists, but it distorts the academic process in the name of easy ways of measuring performance. One can "measure" research article quality, one cannot "measure" the quality of a book, or a book chapter.
If the distortion continues, the outlook for British psychology is serious. Books by British authors will decline steadily in numbers and quality.
It is not, of course, just books and book chapters which are being devalued. It is now almost a negative to edit a book or organise a major conference. The frequency of such activities will almost certainly decline - indeed Peter Morris, Bob Sykes and I decided that after convening and editing the first two international conferences on practical aspects of memory, the third International Practical Aspects of Memory Conference and its subsequent publications would have to be carried out in the United States rather than the United Kingdom, because of the lack of recognition of the activities of major conference organising and editing.
It must also be said that it is highly unlikely whether even publications in high level journals such as the JEP are likely to prove of any long-term significance. We looked at publications in the JEP for 1981, and followed through the number of citations of each article in 1991. More than a third were not cited at all, and the majority were not cited more than once. Only one article from the premier experimental journal in psychology was cited more than ten times in the year. This is hardly evidence that the mere publication of an article in a major journal is going to have a significant effect in the area.
If the academic community rewards only some activities, then other activities, however essential to the overall well-being of the discipline, will be badly damaged.
At the present time, I believe the research exercise is held in considerable contempt because these issues are not being addressed. Moreover there is no appeals procedure and an applicant can be damned by a personal comment without ever knowing.
What then is the way forward? The first step surely is to consider the research process as a whole. Activities such as book writing, book chapter writing, book editing, conference organising, applying research and contributing to the local community must be protected. The only way they can be protected is by being given equal validity or credit with other activities. Unless we do something now to preserve valuable academic activities, all academic activities will suffer considerable damage in the not too distant future.
Michael Gruneberg is in the department of psychology, University of Wales, Swansea.