Taking appropriate measures

Metrics have become prevalent – and problematic – throughout universities, but they can be effective tools if used correctly

July 9, 2015
John Gill, editor, Times Higher Education
Source: Peter Searle

There is an article on the news and meme website BuzzFeed with the headline “The 100 Most Important Cat Pictures of All Time”. The standfirst to the article reads: “OK, this is the one. We can all finally shut down the internet and go home.”

This is the phenomenon known as “clickbait” eating itself with a knowing wink to the audience (the pictures, in case you’re wondering, include a tabby with a Slinky on its head).

The web metrics for the article are predictably huge: more than 10 million views and counting. And that’s how BuzzFeed made its name: creating viral content that flies on social media.

But it’s not what BuzzFeed is investing in now. Just a couple of weeks ago, for example, it appointed a journalist previously tipped as a future editor of The Guardian to head up its UK operation, and last week it was given a co-credit by Newsnight for breaking an important story about a fallout between the government and a major children’s charity.

This is serious journalism, and presumably its importance is measured using a different scale to the clicks and shares metric that might be applied to a list of cats wearing sunglasses.

That’s not to say that BuzzFeed will or should stop the clickbait, but rather that as a journalistic outfit it understands what can and cannot be measured in a particular way, and responds appropriately.

In academia, as in journalism, there is a great deal of handwringing about the way in which metrics have taken over. A major report into their use in higher education, published this week, describes a “metric tide” that has washed over universities in recent years.

It’s certainly a topic that has kept Times Higher Education journalists busy (and, if you’re interested, the web metrics we get for stories on this subject are always particularly impressive).

Look up the word “metrics” in the Oxford English Dictionary, and you’ll find this definition: “Metrics (in business): a set of figures or statistics that measure results”. This gets to the heart of the academic dissent: the OED defines metrics as a business tool, and while it’s easy to measure sales figures, turning academic activities into simplistic profit and loss columns is far more problematic.

But just as good journalists and editors will use metrics to inform editorial decision-making and not as unmediated rule by algorithm, so the same should apply to university leaders and staff.

The details of this week’s metrics report are discussed in our cover story, but in essence it concludes that metrics are not, in fact, the work of the devil – as is so often the case, it’s how they are used that is key, with contextual information being vitally important (in the research excellence framework, for instance, metrics were used as background for panels that wanted it, but never as the sole criterion for judgement).

For James Wilsdon, professor of science and democracy at the University of Sussex, who led the review, there is also an underlying problem in the polarised tone of the discussion about them.

The message of his review panel is that universities need to employ common sense in the way they use metrics: to be responsible and proportionate and human.

It’s not a headline that BuzzFeed will pick up any time soon, but it’s probably a reasonable conclusion.

john.gill@tesglobal.com

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