RAE shifts focus from prestige journals

July 22, 2005

Senior academics overseeing the 2008 research assessment exercise have urged universities to abandon their obsession with big-name journals such as Nature and Science .

If successful, the move could signal a major culture shift in universities where academics are pressured to publish "career grade" papers in top-ranking general journals to gain appointments and promotions.

As the 15 main panels and 67 subject sub-panels this week unveiled the draft criteria for the 2008 RAE, panel chairs stressed that all types of research and journals will be treated equally across all subjects, from the sciences to the arts and humanities.

Sir John Beringer, chair of Panel D, which covers the biological sciences, said: "The jolt will come for those (academics) who take the mindless approach - 'I have so many publications in journals X and Y, therefore I am excellent'. It is terribly important to break the link that publishing in a journal such as Nature is necessarily a measure of excellence."

Rama Thirunamachandran, director of research at the Higher Education Funding Council for England, said: "It is not all about publishing in high-impact journals. It is about ensuring that high-quality research is disseminated by whatever means. In some cases that might be a patent application, in others conference proceedings."

But academics were already questioning the practicality of the new approach. Ian Haines, chairman of the UK Deans of Science Committee, said:

"It is probably almost impossible to ask each panel to read all the information and look at all the publications they are referred to. That does open up problems."

The 2008 RAE, which will determine where billions of pounds in future research grants go, will focus solely on research outputs such as academic papers rather than individuals, and produce star profiles for university departments rather than research ratings as previously.

Despite greater autonomy given to different subject panels, chairs have been keen to emphasise the similarity of their approaches. Most panels have said that 70 per cent of final rankings will be based on research outputs, 20 per cent on research environmentand 10 per cent on esteem. The engineering panel, however, has opted to allocate just 50 per cent to research outputs.

But Sir Bob May, president of the Royal Society, warned against focusing solely on the 2008 RAE. "It is important that members of the research community do not become so absorbed in preparing for the 2008 RAE that they neglect to raise their sights to consider what should happen afterwards," he said.

"If it (a review) does not begin now, there is a danger that we will have time only after the 2008 RAE to tinker again with the existing system. It is time to stop rearranging the deckchairs and decide whether we are on the right ship."

anthea.lipsett@thes.co.uk

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