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Publish or be damned

Laurie Taylor on the system that sells academic research by the pound

Whenever two or three academics are gathered together, talk turns almost immediately to research. On the face of it, this might suggest an admirable commitment to one of the core requirements of the profession. But listen more closely. Although research is certainly the topic of conversation, it is not so much its empirical content or intellectual significance that animates the speakers as its presentation, packaging and promotion.

Research has always been central to academic life. When I became a lecturer in the late 1960s I was amazed to discover my teaching load would be six hours a week. After years teaching in a London comprehensive school where four free periods a week was a luxury, the news that I could squeeze my university teaching into a day and a half seemed too good to be true. It was, however, pointed out to me by my head of department that I was also required by the terms of my contract to carry out some research.

There was, though, no particular incentive to meet this demand. Promotion might come earlier to those who managed to publish, but anybody lacking in ambition could content themselves with a periodic assurance to their head of department that they were engaged in some vague long-term project without fear of any comeback.

This was hardly satisfactory. Large sums of public money were being handed over for research that was often negligible or non-existent. There were periodic attempts by vice-chancellors and heads of department to remedy the situation. But they had few sanctions to employ. At that time tenure was taken for granted and dismissal could only occur in cases of 'grave moral impropriety' (a phrase widely interpreted as 'buggering the bursar'). It was the evident failure of local management that led to the introduction of the now notorious Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) in 1986. From now on there would be external measurements of the research conducted by every university department and these would determine the precise amount of research money allocated in subsequent years.

At first this looked like an improvement. A situation in which academics had been trusted to carry out their research duties had been replaced by one dependent upon objective indicators. But any system is open to abuse, and academics have a distinguished record when it comes to manipulation and mystification. Some indolent lecturers may have been abruptly awakened from their research slumbers by the news that they might find themselves placed on extended teaching duties unless they increased their research activity, but this benefit was quickly outweighed by the increasingly cynical attitude taken to research by the average academic. If research publications were so directly related to funding, then every effort, however dubious, must be made to maximise their output.

Academics who were genuinely engaged upon long-term projects were harassed to produce research articles that could be included in the next RAE. Research which might previously have appeared under one name in a single article was divided into several separate papers and given a co-authorship so as to benefit a less productive member of the department. As departments competed more vigorously, the ante was raised still further. At the best of times, academic journals contain few articles of lasting significance, but the new system generated a veritable flood of largely unread papers. (The citation index that measures the number of times an article is referred to by other academic authors recorded a dramatic increase in the number of papers receiving hardly any such attention.) So many articles were seeking an outlet that new journals were invented to accommodate them.

But all of this was a relatively orderly process compared to the frantic efforts by departments to recruit new members of staff who might add to their research profile. Stories abound of academics with long lists of research publications who have become 'happy hookers', ready to move between one university and another in the 'close season' in return for greatly improved salaries and a promise of negligible teaching duties.

It isn't only the short-termism of this new state of affairs that militates against serious academics. The RAE has strict criteria about what counts as research activity. (A distinguished scholar who has been working for the past three years on an important new translation of a classic French novel was alarmed to be told this year by his head of department that he must immediately turn his hand to other work because 'translations' were not regarded by the RAE as eligible research.)

In this overheated market place, there is little room for ethical concerns. So eager are they to obtain well-funded research projects that academics now threaten to outdo advertisers and public relations firms in their readiness to accept money from big business for projects that in previous years would have been regarded as having no place in institutions devoted to independent scholarship.

Serious researchers are not the only victims of this increasingly cynical exercise. Students, who might have opted for a particular department because they were attracted by the high calibre of the staff, arrive to find themselves being taught by the army of postgraduates which has been wheeled in so as to allow the departmental stars time to add to the ever-growing mountain of research articles.

Some of the faults of the RAE might be bearable if there was any evidence that the new system benefited excellent researchers in low-status universities. But the opposite is the case. Those departments in traditional universities with a long track record in research consistently receive the highest ratings and therefore the greatest financial rewards. Former polytechnics with no such history of research find it difficult, if not impossible, to break into the charmed circle.

It is probably this last factor which has done most to suppress any widespread criticism of the many absurdities and inequities of the RAE. Even though it would be difficult to find any academic in the country who did not regard the exercise as in some ways antithetical to true scholarship, its capacity for preserving the status quo in the university hierarchy means that its survival is ensured.

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Reproduced from LM issue 124, October 1999



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