Reviewers get more say on grants despite fears of insufficient training

But revised system prompts concern over lack of specialist scrutiny. Melanie Newman reports.

January 10, 2008

More power to decide which academics receive grants from the Arts and Humanities Research Council is set to be handed to its Peer Review College.

At the moment, every application for money under the AHRC's research and postgraduate schemes is reviewed by one of eight specialist subject-specific, peer-review panels. Their decisions are informed by reports from individual members drawn from the broader Peer Review College, made up of about 800 academics.

Under proposals for a new system, the specialist panels would be merged into one, and responsibility for judging the quality of applications would rest solely with members of the wider college. But some of its members have been criticised for poor-quality academic judgment and a lack of training.

The Association of University Professors of French and Heads of Departments of French in Universities in the UK and Ireland has expressed concerns about the operation of the Peer Review College.

In its response to the British Academy's report Peer Review: The Challenges in the Humanities and Social Sciences last year, the AUPHF's president, Lucille Cairns, wrote: "Efforts to set up robust peer- review systems, over recent years, have led to an increasing professionalisation of the role, including much more prominence rightly given to training. However, although the AHRC is to be commended for providing some form of training, this could be much improved."

Professor Cairns, of Durham University's department of French, said: "For Peer Review College members, a one-day induction does not seem sufficient. Experience of some AUPHF members has shown that certain members of the Peer Review College write inadequate reports, which either seem unaware of the details of the schemes under consideration or which have, in some cases, reproduced initial comments unchanged in response to re-submitted applications."

The AUPHF wants more emphasis on proper training for peer reviewers across the sector. Professor Cairns wrote that the system of peer review relies on goodwill. When done properly, peer review is "time-consuming and subtracts from time available for other tasks", she wrote, and costs are met by the reviewers' employers.

"Would there be a case for institutions to be subsidised in some measure ... to allow staff to focus on this role?" she asked.

One senior humanities academic, who asked not to be named, said: "Under the current system there is a safety net - the panel - but this will not happen under the new regime. Reports will be taken at face value."

Alicia Greated, associate director of research at the AHRC, said the process was still under consultation and nothing had been finalised. There were five drivers behind the change, she added. These included a desire to use researchers based outside the higher education sector - for example, in museums - and removing barriers to interdisciplinary research. Currently some cross-disciplinary applications are reviewed by more than one panel. The review also aims to improve the speed of decision-making. In future, applications for smaller grants will be fast-tracked.

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