The new Dutch research evaluation protocol

From 2015 onwards, the societal impact of research will be a more prominent measure of success in the evaluation of research in the Netherlands. Less emphasis will be put on the number of publications, while the vigilance about research integrity will be increased. These are the main elements of the new Dutch Standard Evaluation Protocol which was published a few weeks ago.

The new protocol aims to guarantee, improve, and make visible the quality and relevance of scientific research at Dutch universities and institutes. Three aspects are central: scientific quality; societal relevance; and feasibility of the research strategy of the research groups involved. As is already the case in the current protocol, research assessments are organized by institution, and the institutional board is responsible. Nationwide comparative evaluations by discipline are possible, but the institutions involved have to agree explicitly to organize their assessments in a coordinated way to realize this. In contrast to performance based funding systems, the Dutch system does not have a tight coupling between assessment outcomes and funding for research.

This does not mean, inter alia, that research assessments in the Netherlands do not have consequences. On the contrary, these may be quite severe but they will usually be implemented by the university management with considerable leeway for interpretation of the assessment results. The main channel through which Dutch research assessments has implications is via the reputation gained or lost for the research leaders involved. The effectiveness of the assessments is often decided by the way the international committee works which performs the evaluation. If they see it as their main mission to celebrate their nice Dutch colleagues (as has happened in the recent past), the results will be complimentary but not necessarily very informative. On the other hand, they may also punish groups by using criteria that are actually not valid for those specific groups although they may be standard for the discipline as a whole (and this has also happened, for example when book-oriented groups work in a journal-oriented discipline).

The protocol does not include a uniform set of requirements or indicators. The specific mission of the research institutes or university departments under assessment is leading. As a result, research that is mainly aimed at having practical impact may be evaluated with different criteria from a group that aims to work on the international frontier of basic research. The protocol is not unified around substance but around procedure. Each group has to be evaluated every six years. A new element in the protocol is also that the scale for assessment has been changed from a five-point to a four-point scale, ranging from “unsatisfactory”, via “good” and “very good” to “excellent”. This scale will be applied to all three dimensions: scientific quality, societal relevance, and feasibility.

The considerable freedom that the peer committees have in evaluating Dutch research has been maintained in the new protocol. Therefore, it remains to be seen what the effects will be of the novel elements in the protocol. In assessing the societal relevance of research, the Dutch are following their British peers. Research groups will have to construct “narratives” which explain the impact their research has had on society, understood broadly. It is not yet clear how these narratives will be judged according to the scale. The criteria for feasibility are even less clear: according to the protocol a group has an “excellent” feasibility if it is “excellently equipped for the future”. Well, we’ll see how this works out.

With less emphasis on the amount of publications in the new protocol, the Dutch universities, the funding agency NWO and the academy of science KNAW (who collectively are reponsible for the protocol) have also responded to the increased anxiety about “perverse effects” in the research system triggered by the ‘Science in Transition’ group and to recent cases of scientific fraud. The Dutch minister of education, culture and the sciences Jet Bussemaker welcomed this change. “Productivity and speed should not be leading considerations for researchers”, she said at the reception of the new protocol. I fully agree with this statement, yet this aspect of the protocol will also have to stand the test of practice. In many ways, the number of publications is still a basic building block of scientific or scholarly careers. For example, the h-index is very popular in the medical sciences  ((Tijdink, Rijcke, Vinkers, Smulders, & Wouters, 2014). This index is a combination of the number of publications of a researcher and the citation impact of these articles in such a way that the h-index can never be higher than the total number of publications. This means that if researchers are compared according to the h-index, the most productive ones will prevail. We will have to wait and see whether the new evaluation protocol will be able to withstand this type of reward for high levels of article production.

Reference: Tijdink, J. K., Rijcke, S. De, Vinkers, C. H., Smulders, Y. M., & Wouters, P. (2014). Publicatiedrang en citatiestress. Nederlands Tijdschrift Voor Geneeskunde, 158, A7147.

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