Young blood loses out to the old guard

May 19, 2006

Younger and less experienced academics are finding it harder to make a name for themselves in a peer-review system weighted in favour of established research stars, academics have warned.

Amid growing competition in terms of getting papers published and winning research grants, time-poor academic referees are opting for senior academics with proven records in research at the expense of those in the early stages of their careers.

The problems are compounded when junior staff are overlooked in large research teams.

The issue was raised at the Association of University Teachers annual council in Scarborough last week - prompting delegates to unanimously pass a motion calling for a root-and-branch review of the "funding and management of research". It called for a re-examination of the role of teamwork in research grant applications to prevent the bias against junior researchers.

"The system is so murky and there are so many different and often subtle factors all coming together to thwart emerging academic careers," said Hugh Hubbard, a fixed-term researcher at Leeds University who proposed the motion. "And nobody's sorting it out."

Dr Hubbard's motion warned that "the escalating international competition to publish and obtain research grants is making it extremely difficult for early career academic research and teaching staff to establish a name and international reputation."

Dr Hubbard told The Times Higher that while about one in eight individual grant applications to the research council in his field was successful, this masked a much worse success rate for early career researchers.

"The system favours those who already have a track record, so their success rate is much higher," he said. "It is skewed to people who are big international names."

He said there was similar bias built into the informal peer-review system governing who gets published in academic journals.

Dr Hubbard said: "The process of refereeing is being squeezed as academics have less and less time to thoroughly and properly review proposed articles."

So, he said, reviewers tended to fall back on quick assumptions about quality based on recognised names, and gave "shorter shrift" to researchers they have not heard of.

Dr Hubbard also argued that traditional teamworking in research thwarted less experienced staff, whose position in the hierarchy meant that they might not always be properly recognised, as they focused on activities that, while crucial to the research, were not highly visible.

The motion said: "Council recognises that for many disciplines, most of the best research is undertaken in teams although in many cases members of the team do not receive true recognition for their contribution."

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