Ratings to retain peer-review base

Australia's research assessment revamp to use refereeing alongside metrics, John Gill writes

March 6, 2008

Peer review will continue to form a "fundamental" element of Australia's system for assessing the quality of university research.

Kim Carr, the Innovation, Industry, Science and Research Minister, has launched a consultation on how to replace the now-defunct research quality framework. The new system will use metrics - measurements of research outputs, such as the number of times an academic's published research is cited by other scholars - but it will continue to incorporate an element of peer review.

"You need peer review: peer review is the fundamental instrument for keeping everyone honest," Mr Carr told The Australian newspaper.

The move comes as the UK consults on plans to replace a peer review-based research assessment exercise with a system based largely on metrics for science subjects.

Mr Carr said that Australia's new system, to be called Excellence in Research for Australia (Era), will use metrics, including citation data, to help keep costs down.

The plan is for eight expert review panels, which would correspond to the discipline "clusters" covered by the country's research councils, to assess the quality of research by discipline and institution.

The system will draw on the expertise of leading researchers in the Australian Research Council's College of Experts and the review panels of the National Health and Medical Research Council, Mr Carr said.

"The Commonwealth invests billions each year in research. The Era model will provide hard evidence that taxpayers are getting the best bang for their buck," he said.

The Government plans to pilot the Era in disciplines where metrics are most widely accepted, such as physical and biological sciences.

"In parallel," Mr Carr said, "we will continue consultation with other disciplines about metrics appropriate to their disciplines, noting that some measures will be appropriate to all disciplines and that for all disciplines expert review of the metrics is essential."

The proposals have been well received in the Australian higher education sector. Most people see the plans to use the expertise of the ARC as a sensible use of an existing resource.

Merlin Crossley, acting deputy vice-chancellor for research at the University of Sydney, told The Australian: "It's going to save an enormous amount of additional bureaucracy and time because the processes already exist. It's very, very sensible."

Glenn Withers, chairman of Universities Australia, said expert review would assist with assessment of the arts and would "help to ensure that evaluation metrics are interpreted by those well placed to judge quality and merit".

The consultation is now under way. The ARC's advisory council, which is overseeing the process, was due to put out a paper detailing the plans in full after Times Higher Education went to press.

john.gill@tsleducation.com.

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