MOVES to curb manipulation of universities' research records are under way. The Higher Education Funding Council for England will next week publish a consultation document on the research assessment exercise that will examine the grey areas of the four-yearly competition for research cash.
It is often unclear when commonly accepted practices, such as the selective submission of research staff and the use of the researcher transfer market, turns into unacceptable abuse.
Although HEFCE publishes the number and percentage of staff entered into the assessments, it has conceded that its data is sometimes not comprehensive enough to reveal behind-the-scenes abuse by institutions.
Just a week before RAE consultation begins in earnest, a senior academic at a top rated, 5-star department has warned that the "integrity of academic life" is threatened by manoeuvres linked to the RAE at her institution.
Acting anonymously though whistleblowers' charity Public Concern at Work, which verified and protected her identity, she claimed her university created a fictional department into which it transferred staff with poor research records.
In a paper for The THES, she said: "People will try to play the rules to their best advantage. As often happens, prescriptive regulations can undermine the use of discretion and the exercise of judgement as to what is right and what is not. It has always been my view that in academe we have an obligation not to lose sight of our discretion and our judgement.
"I recognise that many institutions do stretch the rules when these seem unduly constraining . . . My concern is that, in the case of my department, the rules were circumvented in a way I find troubling, and of which I doubt the authorities are aware I "To achieve a 5-star, my department faced a problem. A number of my colleagues did not have the research record considered technically necessary to attain the highest ratingI The solution, as I was later told, was notionally to remove these members of staff from the department for the purposes of the RAE.
"A fictional department was thus created into which these colleagues and some from other departments were transferred, unbeknown to me or to my colleagues until after the result was announced. For all practical purposes - brochures, corridor lists and teaching duties - they remained in the department I While I do not know whether HEFCE was informed of this or not. I am quite sure that students applying to join our department are under the impression that the majority of people in it did research of an international standing I "Yet when I questioned the propriety of this, I was given the clear message that this 'ingenious' device was a great service to the institution. Surely, however, this service would only be such at the expense of other institutions which were less 'ingenious'."
Public Concern at Work wants to stimulate a debate on the RAE. Director Guy Dehn said: "This raises issues of probity and accountability. Our client and colleagues are keen that this matter is given a good public airing to see whether this misconduct is rife and, if not, if it is generally condoned.
The whistle blower ends her paper by saying: "I would like to air this issue within the academic community I Am I alone in finding such practices hard to accept? Am I simply 'out of step' with the way things are now done in this country?" HEFCE said it would not "get dragged into" this specific case until the whistleblower came forward and named the institution. The whistleblower has decided to leave her present post. BYLINE:Phil Baty