Plea for assessments, against bean counting – part 2

The LERU report “Research universities and research assessment” is partly inspired by problems that university managers have encountered in their attempt to evaluate the performance of their institute. In her presentation at the launch event of the report, Mary Phillips concluded that universities use assessments in a variety of ways. First, they want to know their output, impact and quality for the allocation of funds, performance improvement, and maximization of ‘return on investment’. Second, research assessments are used to inform strategic planning. Third, they are applied to identify excellent researchers in the context of attracting and retaining them. Fourth, they are used to monitor the performance of individual units in the university, such as departments or faculties. Fifth, research assessments are used to identify current and potential partners for scientific collaboration. And last, they are used at the level of the universities to benchmark against their peers.

Given this variety of assessment applications, it is not surprising that universities encounter a number of problems. The report identifies a number of them. The relevant data are diverse and currently often not integrated in tools. There is a lack of agreement on definitons and standards. For example, who counts as a ‘researcher’ may differ in different university systems. Also, the funding mechanisms are still dominantly national and they differ significantly. And finally, many databases that are used in research assessments are proprietary and cannot be controlled by the universities themselves. Morover, Phillips signals that perverse effects can be expected from current assessment procedures. Measurement cultures may “distract from the academic mission”. It is important to be aware of disciplinary differences, for example with respect to the numbers of citations and the relevant time frames of the measurement. Last, the report mentions that academics may feel threatened by research assessments.

In addition to these problems and dangers, the report identifies two important novel developments in research assessment: the European project to rank universities in multiple dimensions (U-Multirank), and the recent emphasis on the societal impact of research in evaluations. The report is rather critical of U-Multirank. The project, in which CWTS participates, aims to address a major problem in current university rankings. Apart from the research focused rankings, such as the Leiden Ranking or the Scimago Ranking, global rankings have combined different dimensions such as the quality of education and research output in an arbitrary way. Also, they apply one model to all universities. However, universities may have very different missions. Therefore, it makes more sense to compare universities with similar missions. “According to the multidimensional approach a focused ranking does not collapse all dimensions into one rank, but will instead provide a fair picture of institutions (‘zooming in’) within the multi-dimensional context provided by the full set of dimensions.” (U-Multirank) In principle, LERU supports this approach and it was also involved in the first stage feasibility study. However, a number of concerns have led LERU to disengage from the project.

“Our main concerns relate to the lack of good or relevant data in several dimensions, the problems of comparability between countries in areas such as funding, the fact that U-Multirank will not attempt to evaluate the data collected, i.e. there will be no “reality-checks”, and last but by no means least, the enormous burden put upon universities in collecting the data, resulting in a lack of involvement from a good mix of different types of universities from all over the world, which renders the resulting analyses and comparisons suspect.” It has led the organization to turn away from rankings as an instrument in assessment. The European Commission has not followed this reasoning and has recently decided to publish a call for the second stage of the U-Multirank project. The consortium has not yet publicly replied to LERU’s critique.

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