'What a waste': 2008's rejects vent dismay

November 2, 2007

Online, those academics left out of the research assessment tell of pain, politics and bias, writes Zoë Corbyn. Ben Anderson was excluded from the research assessment exercise because neither his outputs nor his institute's fitted neatly into the research areas his university wanted to build on.

"It wasn't a surprise, but galling nonetheless. We refuse to compromise our research by trying to make it fit," said Dr Anderson, the deputy director of Essex University's Chimera Institute, an interdisciplinary institute focusing on the interactions between people and technology.

"Given my research productivity, both in terms of outputs and research income secured, fitting neatly into pigeonholes is no way to do 'boundary' research. And that, of course, is most often where the interesting problems and greatest potential breakthroughs tend to be."

Dr Anderson has created an RAE Rejects group on the social networking site Facebook. He took the initiative after reading of Vic Truesdale's "Castaway" initiative in the pages of The Times Higher in August. Professor Truesdale, a professor of biogeochemistry at Oxford Brookes University, himself excluded from the RAE, asked other academics who had suffered a similar fate to contact him via a "castaway" e-mail, providing an opportunity to tell their stories.

"We set up the Facebook group for fun to see what would happen after hearing about Truesdale's suggestion," said Dr Anderson. "No one else outside the institute has joined yet, but then we haven't publicised it."

Dr Anderson and his colleagues consider exclusion as "a badge to wear proudly". But there are many others who are filled with personal disappointment and fear for their future careers at not being entered into the RAE.

"I am research-active; I have publications in prestigious journals and I am on editorial boards, but I'm not being entered. The way I've been treated, the emotions I've experienced are indescribable," wrote one academic in response to Professor Truesdale's initiative.

There is also plain anger: "The RAE is the intellectual and cultural equivalent of Monsanto's terminator seed. It is destructive of diversity in the short term and therefore ultimately destructive in the long term of the planet," wrote another.

Indeed, in each of Professor Truesdale's responses - painstakingly anonymised and sent exclusively to The Times Higher - the human cost of the RAE rings out. Stories range from those of academics excluded because a department is not entered, to those left out in the cold by office politics, research that is either too theoretical or applied, to the worst of all: preclusion because outputs simply fail to make the grade.

Professor Truesdale, who like Dr Anderson has been prepared to speak out, has an all-too-common story. The academic was looking forward to RAE 2008; despite limited resources, he had produced a nice clutch of papers. Then in the summer, the "bombshell" hit: he was being excluded.

His department wanted to enter its RAE submission on pure biology and Professor Truesdale's work, he was told, would dilute that focus. "What the RAE has done is rubbish my effort over several years. I am very disappointed about being labelled as non-research-active. I would like to tell the world about what I've done in the past ten years. My breakthrough paper has just been published," he said.

The professor's general grievance over the way he has been treated is with the Government, and particularly the Higher Education Funding Council for England, rather than the university, which he says has "no option but to react to the system".

He has spent much time reassuring both his department and his institution that he is not "out of kilter" with either of their aims. "If someone such as me, an efficient, creative and inspiring academic, is not readily admissible, then there is a system failure at the very grossest level," he said.

But in doing the "Castaway" project he also says he has detected a degree of fear about speaking out. "This does not seem to me to be appropriate in universities, where free discussion should be the order of the day." He hopes that anonymously sharing the stories he has received (excerpts of which are published above) will be cathartic for those in similar situations.

Ben Anderson's Facebook group:

E-mail Castaway: castaway@brookes.ac.uk


  • 'I am research-active, but as an individual in an innovative field I was thought to be too risky to submit. Sad, isn't it?'
  • 'My department decided not to submit ... I am increasingly convinced that this is going to be damaging for my career.'
  • 'Our experienced staff are seen as too much of a "risk" and a "gamble". What a waste of years of effort and experience.'
  • 'I am a co-investigator on a couple of major grants, have a thriving research group and publish on average seven refereed papers a year - yet I am still pending for our RAE selection ... I feel that calling me research-inactive is both insulting and dishonest.'
  • 'A decision was made some time ago that there would be no support for an RAE submission in my department, despite the fact that we could have made a strong case. The decision was largely due to internal politics and personal biases among senior management.'
  • 'My substantive work will go completely unnoticed, affecting my ability to apply for external funding.'
  • 'The submission I prepared was not even considered, and I was shipped elsewhere (to another department) for inclusion in theirs. Our university has an equal-opportunity policy on RAE, but it seems to consist of lip service.'
  • 'I've been told I will not be entered in the next RAE because one of my pieces is below the required quality. They say it won't affect my future, but who knows?'
  • 'In our department, our management made the decision not to go for RAE rating at all, as we are a bunch of academics at the fringes and the chances of getting a fair review are small. It is not good for our reputation.'
  • 'I was head of department for some years and I produced relatively few publications in that time, so I am not being entered ... I doubt I would find it easy to find a post in another institution without the RAE accolade.'
  • 'I had submissions at the previous two RAEs, but this time there is apparently no home for my work. I consider myself research-active, publishing regularly in peer-reviewed journals, have a postdoc and two PhD students, but alas no colleagues to form a research group worthy of submission. I feel somewhat left out, but cannot see any obvious solution.'
  • 'I am a senior academic and one of only a few in my centre to be excluded this time. I was told it was because my published work was not of an international standard, but I suspect it is because my colleagues don't take it seriously, even though my area is included in the panel's criteria. It highlights the absurdity and damaging nature of the whole exercise.'
  • 'I have been excluded from the RAE, and our whole research school has suffered through this process.'
  • 'Despite good publication records, we are not being submitted for strategic reasons. If this is not shutting down careers, then I don't know what is.'

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