Will RAE be wooed by weight of words?

July 15, 2005

Academics in the arts and humanities are waiting anxiously to hear the resolution of what has become known as the "super-book" issue: how much will major written works count when compared with basic research papers in the research assessment exercise?

They will find out this Saturday when 67 sub-panels of assessors release details of the proposed criteria for the 2008 RAE, launching an online consultation.

The super-book issue has been a burning topic of conversation at recent consultation meetings. One senior academic, who asked not to be named, said: "It's worrying. The RAE is moving from individual assessment to item-based assessment.

"There is an obvious concern about how the latter will work in the arts and humanities. For instance, someone who writes massive books and very little else: how does that get judged against someone who writes four articles? We are anxious to know how books will be treated."

Judie Newman, chair of the American, African, Asian, Middle Eastern and European studies panel, said the super-book question had been debated at length during meetings.

"People will have to wait and see what the criteria are," she said, adding that it was counterproductive to speculate on what would or would not count.

Nigel Vincent, chair of the languages panel, said the super-book issue had been one of the most complicated areas of the criteria-setting process. But if it is not solved, "foundational scholarship" is in danger of being lost, he said.

"It's not just the big monograph. It could mean taking an edition of texts that take a number of years to prepare. A lot of future scholarship can work off the back of an enterprise like that."

Ed Hughes, the RAE manager, said the consultation was structured around the key reforms in the 2008 exercise: the two-tier panel structure and the new quality profile scores that university departments will receive.

Panels are to specify what emphasis they will place on research output (research papers for example), environment (departmental plans for example) and esteem (such as academic awards) in judging research quality.

But a minimum of 50 per cent will be placed on research output when reaching departmental scores.

Mr Hughes said he wanted academics to look at the way indicators of academic excellence had been developed to fit the new quality profiles and decide whether they agreed with the weightings.

He added: "Panels will not say that any particular type of output is worth more than another. All types of research are eligible for submission." But they will indicate the sorts of research output they would expect to see, he said.

Respondents should also look at the provisions that the panels have made to acknowledge the work research teams have done to help researchers at various stages of their careers, Mr Hughes said.


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