RAE puts goodbooks on the back burner

August 27, 1999

Russell Jones's (above) PhD thesis was shortlisted for a major national prize but his supervisor's prediction that it was unpublishable proved frustratingly accurate. "None of the journals would take it on because it was too unconventional," he said.

The thesis on multicultural education is written as a piece of detective fiction. It was rejected by editors who were looking for a "clinically detached style".

"The actual research methodology was never questioned, it was only the language I used to describe it," Dr Jones said.

"People said I was making things up because it was presented as a story but no PhD can assume it is telling the whole truth.

"All research is highly subjective but you are not allowed to say that. In fact there is no real vehicle for dealing with these issues, as my experience shows."

Dr Jones was persuaded to rewrite the thesis as a "normal" research report and it has now been published to widespread acclaim. Academic publishing is being dumbed down by the research assessment exercise, according to a survey of senior commissioning editors from major education publishing houses.

The survey, to be unveiled at the British Educational Research Association conference next week, reveals the hitherto "invisible impact" of the RAE on publishing.

The editors refer to "lower quality proposals" and the tendency for work to be rushed through because lecturers are forced to submit work according to RAE schedules.

Others lament the new market-led approach to academic publishing, which they believe is changing commissioning procedures.

"Some proposals that would have been contracted five or ten years ago are now deemed uncommercial and therefore have to be rejected," according to one respondent.

Survey author Jon Nixon of Stirling University's institute of education said the editors commonly viewed the RAE in a negative light. One described the publishing process as "pretty well unrecognisable" from ten years ago due to the RAE. The editor said: "It has made commissioning titles more problematic. The kinds of books I want are not the sort of thing that scores highly with the assessors."

Professor Nixon fears the changes mean good books remain unpublished and probably unwritten.

"There are truths that will never be told, arguments that will never be developed, analyses that will never be unpicked because they are considered to be irrelevant, outdated, inaccessible - or simply unprofitable."

Professor Nixon said only a "determined rejection of the ratings mindset" would ensure the production of thoughtful original texts that tackle educational issues.

"Publishers and academics are under pressure to get things done in a hurry, as if more ideas, more arguments, more analyses could be concentrated into an increasingly contracted time span."

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