Radical economists left out in the cold

July 7, 1995

Non-mainstream economists are being marginalised by research assessment, a new survey of the subject in universities argues.

The report, The Academic Labour Process and the Research Assessment Exercise: Academic Diversity and the Future of Non-Mainstream Economics in UK Universities, by Sandra Harley and Fred Lee of the Leicester Business School, is based on questionnaire responses from 380 economists in 79 institutions. The authors acknowledge that it is not statistically representative, but argue that the sample is large enough to show trends and causes for concern.

Worries that research assessment would have a conservative, conformist impact on research are particularly acute in economics because of its marked publications hierarchy, defined by the "Diamond List" of top journals compiled by Arthur Diamond in 1988.

The report says: "Despite denials on the part of the economics panel that any formal list was used in either the 1989 or the 1992 assessment exercise, the results would confirm the widely-shared if tacit, convention as to what constitutes the list of high ranking journals."

They found that non-mainstream economists were particularly conscious of the impact of the research assessment exercise and that this change was most apparent in the old universities. Recruitment and promotion were emphasising mainstream publication.

One respondent said: "The whole concept of core journals has got a firmer grip on the profession than, say, ten years ago. What counts about an article now is where it's published rather than what it says."

Status and reputation are now increasingly dictated by research assessment. This made resistance to the process and its values self-defeating, forcing many economists to switch their research in a more mainstream direction. The report concludes that the likely outcome of this mainstreaming "will be students ignorant of alternative knowledge and a lack of the necessary training to mount an effective intellectual challenge".

But they warn against looking back nostalgically to a more collegial past, suggesting that research assessment only made transparent a hierarchy which already existed within the subject more visible.

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