The Facebook-ization of academic reputation?

Guest blog post by Alex Rushforth

The Facebook-ization of academic reputation? ResearchGate, and Everyday neoliberalism

How do we explain the endurance of neoliberal modes of government following the 2008 financial crisis, which could surely have been its death-knoll? This is the question of a long, brilliant, book by historian of science and economics Philip Mirowski, called ‘Never let a serious crisis go to waste’. Mirowski states that explanations of the crisis to date have accounted for only part of the answer. Part of the persistence of neo-liberal ideals of personhood and markets comes not just directly from ‘the government’ or particular policies, but is a result of very mundane practices and technologies which surround us in our everyday lives.

I think this book can tell us a lot about new ways in which our lives as academics are increasingly being governed. Consider web platforms like ResearchGate and following Mirowski, these academic professional networking sites might be understood as technologies of ‘everyday neoliberalism’. These websites share a number of resemblances with social networking sites like Facebook – which Mirowski takes as an exemplar par excellence of this phenomenon. He argues Facebook teaches its users to become ‘entrepreneurs of themselves’, by fragmenting the self and reducing it to something transient (ideals emanating from the writings of Hayek and Friedman), to be actively and promiscuously re-drawn out of various click-enabled associations (accumulated in indicators like numbers of ‘likes’, ‘friends’, comments) (Mirowski, 2013, 92).

Let us briefly consider what kind of academic and ResearchGate encourages and teaches us to become. Part of the seductiveness of these technologies for academics, I suspect, is that we already compete within reputational work organisations (c.f. Whitley, 2000), where self-promotion has always been part-and-parcel of producing new knowledge. However, such platforms also intensify and reinforce dominant ideas and practices for evaluating research and researchers, which – with the help of Mirowski’s text – appear to be premised on neoliberal doctrines. Certainly the websites build on the idea that the individual (as author) is the central locus of knowledge production. Yet what is distinctly neoliberal perhaps is how the individual – through the architecture and design of the websites – experiences their field of knowledge production as a ‘marketplace of ideas’ (on the neo-liberal roots of this idea, see Mirowski, 2011).

This is achieved through ‘dashboards’ that display a smorgasbord of numerical indicators. When you upload your work, the interface generates the Impact Factor of journals you have published in and various other algorithmically-generated scores (ResearchGate score anyone?). There are also social networking elements like ‘contacts’, enabling you to follow and be followed by other users of the platform (your ‘peers’). This in turn produces a count of how well ‘networked’ you are. In short, checking one’s scores, contacts, downloads, views, and so on is supposed to give an impression of an individual user’s market standing, especially as one can compare these with scores of other users. Regular email notifications provide reminders to continue internalizing these demands and to report back regularly to the system. These scores and notices are not final judgments but a record of accomplishments so far, motivating the user to carry on with the determination to do better. Given the aura of ‘objectivity’ and ‘market knows best’ mantra these indicators present to us, any ‘failings’ are the responsibility of the individual. Felt anger is to be turned back inward on the self, rather than outwards on the social practices and ideas through which such ‘truths’ are constituted. A marketplace of ideas indeed.

Like Facebook, what these academic professional networking sites do seems largely unremarkable and uncontroversial, forming part of background infrastructures which simply nestle into our everyday research practices. One of their fascinating features is to promulgate a mode of power that is not directed to us ‘from above’ – no manager or formal audit exercise is coercing researchers into signing-up. We are able to join and leave of our own volition (many academics don’t even have accounts). Yet these websites should be understood as component parts of a wider ‘assemblage’ of metrics and evaluation techniques with which academics currently juggle, which in turn generate certain kinds of tyrannies (see Burrows, 2012).

Mirowski’s book provides a compelling set of provocations for digital scholars, sociologists of science, science studies, higher education scholars and others to work with. Many studies have been produced documenting reforms to the university which have bared various hallmarks of neoliberal political philosophical doctrines (think audits, university rankings, temporary labour contracts, competitive funding schemes and the like). Yet these latter techniques may only be the tip of the iceberg: Mirowski has given us cause to think more imaginatively about how ‘everyday’ or ‘folk’ neoliberal ideas and practices become embedded in our academic lives through quite mundane infrastructures, the effects of which we have barely begun to recognise, let alone understand.


Burrows, R. 2012. Living with the h-index? Metric assemblages in the contemporary academy. Sociological Review, 60, 355-372.

Mirowski, P. 2011. Science-mart : privatizing American science, Cambridge, Mass. ; London, Harvard University Press.

Mirowski, P. 2013. Never let a serious crisis go to waste : how neoliberalism survived the financial meltdown, New York, Verso.

Whitley, R. 2000. The intellectual and social organization of the sciences, Oxford England ; New York, Oxford University Press.



CWTS in new European consortium

Good news came our way yesterday! CWTS will be partner in a new project funded by the Swedisch Riksbankens Jubileumsfond: Knowledge in science and policy. Creating an evidence base for converging modes of governance in policy and science (KNOWSCIENCE). The project is coordinated by Merle Jacob (Lund University, Sweden). Other partners in the consortium are Dietmar Braun (Lausanne University, Switzerland), Tomas Hellström (Department of Business Administration, Lund University), Niilo Kauppi (CNRS, Strasbourg, France), Duncan Thomas & Maria Nedeva (Manchester Institute of Innovation Research, Manchester Business School, UK), Rikard Stankiewitz (Lund University), and Sarah de Rijcke & Paul Wouters (CWTS).

KNOWSCIENCE focuses on deepening our understanding of the interplay between policy instruments intended to govern the structural organization of higher education and research (HER) and the informal rules and processes that organisations have developed for ensuring the validity and quality of the knowledge they produce. KNOWSCIENCE refers to this as the interplay between structural and epistemic governance, and argue that an understanding of this relationship is necessary for building sustainable knowledge producing arrangements and institutions and securing society’s long-term knowledge provision.

The main research question guiding the project is ‘how do policy and the science systems co-produce the conditions for sustainable knowledge provision?’ Specifically we ask:

(a) How are HER policy steering mechanisms enabled, disabled and transformed throughout the HER sector via the academic social system?

(b) What are the most significant unintended consequences of HER policy on the HER system? and

(c) What types of policy frameworks would be required to meet these challenges?

The announcement on the RJ website can be found via this link.

In Search of Excellence? Debating the Merits of Introducing an Elite Dutch University Model

Report by Alex Rushforth

Should the Netherlands strive for excellence in its university systems? Will maintaining quality suffice? This was the topic of a recent panel debate at the WTMC annual meeting on 21 November 2014 in De Balie, Amsterdam. Organised and chaired by Willem Halffman, the session focused on an article published by Barend Van Der Meulen in the national newspaper De Volkskrant, which advocated the need to produce two excellent universities which excel on internationally published rankings, thereby creating a new top-tier in the Dutch higher education system.

Both van der Meulen and Halffman presented their views, with an opposing position also coming from Sally Wyatt. Completing the panel, CWTS’s very own Paul Wouters provided results from recent empirical work about rankings.

Barend van der Meulen’s call for an elite university stemmed from the fact Dutch universities perennially sit outside of the top-50 in Shanghai and Times Higher Education rankings. For him the message is clear: the Netherlands is repeatedly failing to enhance its reputation as an elite player among global universities, a position which ought to cause concern. Van der Meulen stated that his call for an elite university model is part of a need to create an expanded repertoire of what universities are and what they should do in the Netherlands. The pursuit of rankings through this vehicle is therefore tightly coupled with a rejection of the status quo. Rankings are a social technology which ought to be harnessed for quality improvement and as tools through which to promote democratic participation by equipping students and policymakers with tools to make judgments and exert some influence over universities. Alternative modes of evaluation like peer review provide closed systems in which only other academics can make judgments, leaving university activities unaccountable to external modes of evaluation. This ‘ivory tower’ situation reminiscent of the 1980s is an image Van Der Meulen wishes to escape from, as ultimately it damages credibility and legitimacy of universities. The reliance on public money for research and education makes the moral case for university improvement and accountability particularly pressing in the Netherlands. For Van Der Meulen, the ‘good enough’ university (see Wyatt’s argument below) is not enough, given that excellence is imposing itself as a viable and increasingly important alternative.

First to oppose the motion in favour of elite universities was Willem Hallfman, whose talk built on a reply co-authored with Roland Bal, also in De Volkskrant. In the talk Halffman questioned the very foundations of the idea that ‘excellence’ ought to be pursued. Drawing unflattering comparisons between the research budget of Harvard University and that of the entire Netherlands, it was argued that competing within a global superleague would require a radical expansion of existing research budgets and wage structures across the Dutch university system, which he felt unrealistic and unreasonable against a backdrop of crisis in public finances. As well as reproducing national elites, Halffman also questioned the desirability of ranking systems which promote academic stars and the consequences this brings to institutions of science in general and Dutch universities in particular. Football-style league tables provide poor models on which to rate universities, as in contrast with sport where a winner-takes-all logic is central, for universities embodying a broad repertoire of societal functions, it is not clear what ‘winning’ means and how this would be made visible and commensurable through performance indicators.

Sally Wyatt recounted her personal experiences of the shock she encountered when studying and working in British universities in the 1980s, having grown-up in Canada within a period of prosperity and social mobility. These experiences fired a series of warning shots not to go down a road of pursuing excellence. When a move to the Netherlands came about in 1999, it promised her an oasis away from the turmoil the British university system had faced as a result of Thatcherite policy reforms. With the emergence of the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) and its ranking logic comes also a rise in managerial positions and policies, decline in working conditions, and a widening gender gap. Gone also was a latent class system engrained in the culture of universities, with dominant elite institutions the site of social stratification reproduced across generations, which rankings merely encourage and reinforce. Despite erosion of certain positive attributes in universities since her arrival in the Netherlands, Wyatt argued that the Dutch system still preserves enough of a ‘level-playing field’ in terms of funding allocation to merit fierce resistance to any introduction of an elite university model. For Wyatt sometimes it is better to promote the ‘good enough’ than to chase an imperialist and elitist vision of ‘excellence’.

Drawing on work on university and hospital rankings carried-out with Sarah De Rijcke (CWTS), Iris Wallenburg and Roland Bal (Erasmus MC, Rotterdam), Paul Wouters’ talk advocated the need for a more fine-grained STS investigations into the kinds of work that goes into rankings, who is doing it, and in what situations. What is at stake in studying rankings then is not simply the critique of this or that tool, but a more pervasive (and sometimes invisible) logic/set of practices encountered across public organisations like universities and hospitals. Wouters advocated a move towards combining audit society critiques (which tend to be top-down) with STS insights into how ranking is practiced across various organisational levels in universities. This would provide a more promising platform through which to inform debates of the kind playing-out over the desirability of the elite university.

So the contrast between positions was stark. Are rankings – these seemingly ubiquitous ordering mechanisms of contemporary social life – something the Netherlands can afford to back away from in governing its universities? If they are being pursued anyway, shouldn’t policy intervene and assist a more systematic pursuit up the rankings which would enable more pronounced successes? Or is it necessary to oppose the very notion that the Netherlands needs to excel in a ‘globally competitive’ race, particularly given the seeming arbitrariness of many of the metrics according to which prestige gets attributed via ranking mechanisms? Despite polarization on what is to be done, potential for extending STS’s conceptual and empirical apparatus to mediate these discussions seemed to strike a chord among panelists and the audience alike. No doubt this stimulating debate touches on a set of issues that will not be going away quickly, and is one on which the WTMC community is surely well placed to intervene.

Ethics and misconduct – Review of a play organized by the Young Academy (KNAW)

This is a guest blog post by Joost Kosten. Joost is PhD student at CWTS and member of the EPIC working group. His research focuses on the use of research indicators from the perspective of public policy. Joost obtained an MSc in Public Administration (Leiden University) and was also trained in Political Science (Stockholm University) and Law (VU University Amsterdam).

Scientific (mis)conduct – The sins, the drama, the identification

On Tuesday November 18th 2014 the Young Academy of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Sciences organized a performance of the play Gewetenschap by Tony Maples at Leiden University. These weeks, Pandemonia Science Theater is on tour in the Netherlands to perform this piece at several universities. Gewetenschap was inspired by occasional troubles with respect to ethics and integrity which recently occurred in Dutch science and scholarship. Although these troubles concerned grave violations of the scientific code of conduct (i.e., the cardinal sins of fraud, fabrication, and plagiarism) the play focusses on common dilemma’s in a researcher’s everyday life. The title Gewetenschap is a non-existent word, which combines the Dutch words geweten (conscience) and wetenschap (science).

The playwright used confidential interviews with members of the Young Academy to gain insight into the most frequently occurring ethical dilemma’s researchers have to deal with. Professor Karin de Zwaan is a research group leader who has hardly any time to do research herself. She puts much effort in organizing grants, attracting new students and organizing her research group. Post-doc Jeroen Dreef is a very active researcher who does not have enough time to take organizational responsibilities serious. A tenure track is all he wants. Given their other important activities, Karin and Jeroen hardly have any time to supervise PhD student Lotte. One could question the type of support they do give her.

At times, given the reaction on scenes of the drama piece, the topics presented were clearly recognized by the audience. Afterwards, the dilemma’s touched upon during the play are presented by prof. Bas Haring. The audience discusses the following topics:

  • Is there a conflict between the research topics a researcher likes himself and what the research group expects her/him to do?
  • In one of the scenes, the researchers were delighted because of the acceptance of a publication. Haring asks if that exhibits “natural behaviour”. Shouldn’t a researcher be happy with good results instead of a publication being accepted? One of the participants replies that a publication functions as a reward.
  • What do you do with your data? Is endless application of a diversity analysis methods until you find nice results a responsible approach?
  • What about impact factors (IF)? Bas Haring himself says his IF is 0. “Do you think I am an idiot?” Which role do numbers such as the IF play in your opinion about colleagues? There seems to be quite a diversity of opinions. An early career research says everone knows these numbers are nonsense. An experienced scientist points out that there is a correlation between scores and quality. Someone else expresses his optimism since he expects that this focus on numbers will be over with ten years. This causes another to respond that in the past there was competition too, but in a different way.
  • When is someone a co-author? This question results in a lively debate. Apparently, there are considerable differences from field to field. In the medical fields, a co-authorship can be a way to express gratitude to authors who have played a vital role in a research project, such as people who could organize experimental subjects. In this way, a co-authorship becomes a tradeable commodity. A medicine professor points out that in his field, co-authorships can be used to compare a curriculum vitae with the development of status as a researcher. Thus, it can be used as a criterion to judge grant proposals. A good researcher should start with first position co-authorships, later on should have co-authorships somewhere in between the first and last author, and should end his career with papers in which has co-authorships in the last position. Thus, the further the career has been developed, the more the name of the other should be in the final part of the author list. Another participant states that one can deal with co-authorships in three different ways: 1. Co-authors should always have full responsibility for everything in the paper. 2. Similar to openness which is given at the end of a movie, co-authors should clarify what each co-author’s contribution was. 3. Only those who really contributed in writing a paper can be a co-author. The participant admits that this last proposal works in his own field but might not work in other fields.
  • Can a researcher exaggerate his findings if he presents them to journalists? Should you keep control over a journalist’s work in order to avoid that he will present things differently? Is it allowed to present untruth information in order to help support your case, just to avoid that a proper scientific argumentation will be too complex for the man in the street?
  • Is it allowed to to present your work as having more societal relevance than you really expect? One of the reactions is that researchers are forced to express the societal relevance of their work when they apply for a grant. From the very nature of scientific research it is hardly possible to clearly indicate what society will gain from the results.
  • What does a good relationship between a PhD-student and a supervisor look like? What is a good balance between serving the interests of PhD students, serving organizational interests (e.g. the future of the organization by attracting new students and grants), and the own interest of the researcher?

The discussion did not concentrate on the following dilemma´s presented in Gewetenschap:

  • To what extent are requirements for grant proposals contradictory? On the one hand, researchers are expected to think ‘out-of-the-box’ while on the other hand they should meet a large amount of requirements. Moreover, should one propose new ideas including the risks which come along, or is it better to walk on the beaten path in order to guarantee successes?
  • Should colleagues who did not show respect be served with the same sauce if you have a chance to review their work? Should you always judge scientific work on its merits? Are there any principles of ‘due process’ which should guide peer review?
  • Whose are the data if someone contributed to them but moves to another research group or institute?


Quality in the age of the impact factor

ISIS, the most prestigious journal in the history of science, moved house last September and its central office is now located at the Descartes Centre for the History and Philosophy of the Sciences and Humanities at Utrecht University. The Dutch science historian H. Floris Cohen took up the position of the editor in chief of the journal. No doubt this underlines the international reputation of the community of historians of science in the Netherlands. Being the editor of the central journal in ones field surely is mark of esteem and quality.

The opening of the editorial office in Utrecht was celebrated with a symposium entitled “Quality in the age of the impact factor”. Since quality of research in history is intimately intertwined with the quality of writing, it seemed particularly apt to call attention to the role of impact factors in humanities fields. I used the occasion to pose the question how we actually define scientific and scholarly quality. How do we recognize quality in our daily practices? And how can this variety of practices be understood theoretically? Which approaches in the field of science and technology studies are most relevant?

In the same month, Pleun van Arensbergen graduated on a very interesting PhD dissertation which dealt with some of the issues, “Talent Proof. Selection Processes in Research Funding and Careers”. Van Arensbergen did her thesis work at the Rathenau Institute in The Hague. The quality of research is increasingly seen as mainly the result of the quality of the people involved. Hence, universities “have openly made it one of their main goals to attract scientific talent” (van Arensbergen, 2014, p. 121). A specific characteristics of this “war for talent” in the academic world is that there is an oversupply of talents and a relative lack of career opportunities, leading to a “war between talents”. The dissertation is a thorough analysis of success factors in academic careers. It is an empirical analysis of how the Dutch science foundation NWO selects early career talent in its Innovational Research Incentives Scheme. The study surveyed researchers about their definitions of quality and talent. It combines this with an analysis of both the outcome and the process of this talent selection. Van Arensbergen paid specific attention to the gender distribution and to the difference between successful and unsuccessful applicants.

Her results point to a discrepancy between the common notion among researchers that talent is immediately recognizable (“you know it when you see it”) and the fact that there are very small differences between candidates that get funded and those that do not. The top and the bottom of the distribution of quality among proposals and candidates are relatively easy to detect. But the group of “good” and “very good” proposals is still too large to be funded. Van Arensbergen and her colleagues did not find a “natural threshold” above which the successful talents can be placed. On the contrary, in one of her chapters they find that researchers who leave the academic system due to lack of career possibilities regularly score higher on a number of quality indicators than those who are able to continue a research career. “This study does not confirm that the university system always preserves the highly productive researchers, as leavers were even found to outperform the stayers in the final career phase (van Arensbergen, 2014, p. 125).

Based on the survey, her case studies and her interviews, Van Arensbergen also concludes that productivity and publication records have become rather important for academic careers. “Quality nowadays seems to a large extent to be defined as productivity. Universities seem to have internalized the performance culture and rhetoric to such an extent that academics even define and regulate themselves in terms of dominant performance indicators like numbers of publications, citations or the H-index. (…) Publishing seems to have become the goal of academic labour.” (van Arensbergen, 2014, p. 125). This does not mean, however, that these indicators determine the success of a career. The study questions “the overpowering significance assigned to these performance measures in the debate, as they were not found to be entirely decisive.” (van Arensbergen, 2014, p. 126) An extensive publication record is a condition but not a guarantee for success.

This relates to another finding: the group process of panel discussions are also very important. With a variety of examples, Van Arensbergen shows how the organization of the selection process shapes the outcome. The face to face interview of the candidate with the panel is for example crucial for the final decision. In addition, the influence of the external peer reports was found to be modest.

A third finding in the talent dissertation is that success in obtaining grants feeds back into ones scientific and scholarly career. This creates a self reinforcing mechanism, which the science historian Robert Merton coined the Matthew effect after the quote from the bible: “For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken even that which he hath.” (Merton, 1968). Van Arensbergen concludes that this means that differences between scholars may initially be small but will increase in the course of time as a result of funding decisions. “Panel decisions convert minor differences in quality into enlarged differences in recognition.”

Combining these three findings leads to some interesting conclusions regarding how we actually define and shape quality in academia. Although panel decisions about who to fund are strongly shaped by the organization of the selection process as well as by a host of other contextual factors (including chance), and although all researchers are aware of the uncertainties in these decisions, this does not mean that these decisions are given less weight. On the contrary, obtaining external grants has become a cornerstone for successful academic careers. Universities even devote considerable resources to make their researchers abler to acquire prestigious grants as well as external funding in general. Although this is clearly instrumental for the organization, Van Arensbergen thinks that grants have become part of the symbolic capital of a researcher and research group and she refers to Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of symbolic capital to better understand the implications.

This brings me to my short lecture at the opening of the editorial office of ISIS in Utrecht. Although the experts on bibliometric indicators don’t generally see the Journal Impact Factor as an indicator of quality, socially it seems to partly function like it. But indicators are not alone in shaping how we in practice identify, and thereby define, talent and quality. They flow together with the way quality assurance and measurement processes are organized, the social psychology of panel discussions, the extent to which researchers are visible in their networks, etc. In these complex contextual interactions, indicators do not determine but they are ascribed meaning dependent on the situation in which the researchers find themselves. A good way to think about this, in my view, is developed in the field of material semiotics. This approach which has its roots in the French actor network theory of Bruno Latour and Michel Callon, does not accept a fundamental rupture in reality between the material and the symbolic. Reality as such is the result of complex and interacting translation processes. This is an excellent philosophical basis to understand how scientific and scholarly quality emerge. I see quality not as an attribute of an academic persona or of a particular piece of work, but as the result of the interaction between a researcher (or a manuscript) and the already existing scientific or scholarly infrastructure (eg. the body of published studies). If this interaction creates a productive friction (meaning that there is enough novelty in the contribution but not so much that it is incompatible with the already existing body of work), we see the work or scholar as of high quality. In other words, quality does simply not (yet) exist outside of the systems of quality measurement. The implication of this is that quality itself is a historical category. It is not an invariant but a culturally and historically specific concept that changes and morphes over time. In fact, the history of science is the history of quality. I hope historians of science will take up the challenge to map this history in more empirical and theoretical sophistication than has been done so far.


Merton, R. K. (1968). The Matthew Effect in Science. Science, 159, 56–62.

Van Arensbergen, P. (2014). Talent proof : selection processes in research funding and careers. The Hague, Netherlands: Rathenau Institute. Retrieved from


Developing guiding principles and standards in the field of evaluation – lessons learned

This is a guest blog post by professor Peter Dahler-Larsen. The reflections below are a follow-up of his keynote at the STI conference in Leiden (3-5 September 2014) and the special session at STI on the development of quality standards for science & technology indicators. Dahler-Larsen holds a chair at the Department of Political Science, University of Copenhagen. He is former president of the European Evaluation Society and author of The Evaluation Society (Stanford University Press, 2012).

Lessons learned about the development of guiding principles and standards in the field of evaluation – A personal reflection

Professor Peter Dahler-Larsen, 5 October 2014

Guidelines are symbolic, not regulatory

The limited institutional status of guiding principles and standards should be understood as a starting point for the debate. In the initial phases of development of such standards and guidelines, people often have very strong views. But only the state can enforce laws. To the extent that guidelines and standards merely express some official views of a professional association who has no institutional power to enforce them, standards and guidelines will have limited direct consequences for practitioners. The discussion becomes clearer once it is recognized that standards and guidelines thus primarily have a symbolic and communicative function, not a regulatory one. Practitioners will continue to be free to do whatever kind of practice they like, also after guidelines have been adopted.

Design a process of debate and involvement

All members of a professional association should have a possibility to comment on a draft version of guidelines/standards. An important component in the adoption of guidelines/standards is the design of a proper organizational process that involves the composition of a draft by a select group of recognized experts, an open debate among members, and an official procedure for the adoption of standards/guidelines as organizational policy.

Acknowledge the difference between minimum and maximum standards

Minimal standards must be complied with in all situations. Maximum standards are ideal principles worth striving for, although they will not be accomplished in any particular situation. It often turns out that there will be many maximum principles in a set of guidelines, although that is not what most people believe is “standards.” For that reason I personally prefer the term guidelines or guiding principles rather that “standards.”

Think carefully about guidelines and methodological pluralism

Advocates of a particular method often think that methodological rules connected to their own method defines quality as such in the whole field. For that reason, they are likely to insert their own methodological rules into the set of guidelines. As a consequence, guidelines can be used politically to promote one set of methods or one particular paradigm rather than another. Great care should be exercised in the formulation of guidelines to make sure that pluralism remains protected. For example, in evaluation the rule is that if you subscribe to a particular method, you should have high competence in the chosen method. But that goes for all methods.

Get beyond the “but that´s obvious” argument

Some argue that it is futile to formulate a set of guidelines because at that level of generality, it is only possible to state some very broad and obvious principles with which every sensible person must agree. The argument sounds plausible when you hear it, but my experience suggests otherwise for a number of reasons. First, some people have just not thought about a very bad practice (for example, doing evaluation without written Terms of Reference). Once you see, that someone has formulated a guideline against this, you are likely to start paying attention to the problem. Just because a principle is obvious to some, does not mean that it is obvious to all. Second, although there may be general agreement about a principle (such as “do no unnecessary harm” or “take general social welfare into account”), there can be strong disagreement about the interpretations and implications of the principle in practice.  Third, a good set of guiding principles will often comprise at least two principles that are somewhat in tension with each other, for example the principle of being quick and useful versus the principle of being scientifically rigorous. To sort out exactly which kind of tension between these two principles one can live with in a concrete case turns out to be a matter of complicated professional judgment. So, get beyond the “that´s obvious” argument.

Recognize the fruitful uses of guidelines

Among the most important uses of guidelines in evaluation are:

– In application situations, good evaluators can explain their practice with reference to broader principles

– In conferences, guidelines can stimulate insightful professional discussions about how to handle complicated cases

– Books and journals can make use of guidelines as inspiration for the development of an ethical awareness among practitioners. For example, google Michael Morris´ work in the field of evaluation.

– There is great use of guidelines in teaching and in other forms of socialization of evaluators.

Respect the multiplicity of organizations

If, say, the European Evaluation Society wants to adopt a set of guidelines, it should be respected that, say, the German and the Swiss association already have their own guidelines. Furthermore, some professional associations (say, psychologists) also have guidelines. A professional association should take such overlaps seriously and find ways to exchange views and experiences with guidelines across national and organizational borders.

Professionals are not alone, but relations can be described in guidelines, too

It is often debated that one of the major problems in bad evaluation practice is the behavior of commissioners. Some therefore think that guidelines describing good evaluation practice are in vain until the behavior of commissioners (and perhaps other users of evaluation) are included in the guidelines, too. However, there is no particular reason why the guidelines cannot describe a good relation and a good interaction between commissioners and evaluators. Remember, guidelines have no regulatory power. They express merely the official norms of the professional association. Evaluators are allowed to express what they think a good commissioner should do or not do. In fact, explicit guidelines can help clarify mutual and reciprocal role expectations.

Allow for regular reflection, evaluation and revision of guidelines

At regular intervals, guidelines should be debated, evaluated and revised. The AEA guidelines, for example, have been revised and now reflect values regarding culturally competent evaluation that was not in earlier versions. Guidelines are organic and reflect a particular socio-historical situation.


Michael Morris (2008). Evaluation Ethics for Best Practice. Guilford Press.

American Evaluation Association Guiding principles

Tales from the field: On the (not so) secret life of performance indicators

* Guest blog post by Alex Rushforth *

In the coming months Sarah De Rijcke and I have been accepted to present at conferences in Valencia and Rotterdam on research from CWTS’s nascent EPIC working group. We very much look forward to drawing on collaborative work from our ongoing ‘Impact of indicators’ project on biomedical research in University Medical Centers (UMC) in the Netherlands. One of our motivations behind the project is that there has been a wealth of social science literature in recent times about the effects of formal evaluation in public sector organisations, including universities. Yet too few studies have taken seriously the presence of indicators in the context of one of the universities core-missions: knowledge creation. Fewer still have looked to take an ethnographic lens to the dynamics of indicators in the day-to-day work context of academic knowledge. These are deficits we hope to begin addressing through these conferences and beyond.

The puzzle we will be addressing here appears – at least at first glance- straightforward enough: what is the role of bibliometric performance indicators in the biomedical knowledge production process? Yet comparing provisional findings from two contrasting case studies of research groups from the same UMC – one a molecular biology group and the other a statistics group – it becomes quickly apparent that there can be no general answer to this question. As such we aim to provide not only an inventory of different ‘roles’ of indicators in these two cases, but also to pose the more interesting analytical question of what conditions and mechanisms explain the observed variations in the roles indicators come to perform?

Owing to their persistent recurrence in the data so far, the indicators we will analyze are journal impact factor, H-index, and ‘advanced’ citation-based bibliometric indicators. It should be stressed that our focus on these particular indicators have have emerged inductively from observing first-hand the metrics that research groups attended to in their knowledge-making activities. So what have we found so far?

Dutch UMCs constitute particularly apt sites through which to explore this problem given how bibliometric assessments have been central to the formal evaluations carried-out since their inception in the early-2000s. On one level it is argued that researchers in both cases encounter such metrics as ‘governance/managerial devices’, that is, as forms of information required of them by external agencies on whom they are reliant for resources and legitimacy. Such examples can be seen when funding applications, annual performance appraisals, or job descriptions demand such information of an individual’s or group’s past performance. As the findings will show, the information needed by the two groups to produce their work effectively and the types of demands made on them by ‘external’ agencies varies considerably, despite their common location in the same UMC. This is one important reason why the role of indicators differs between cases.

However, this coercive ‘power over’ account is but one dimension of a satisfying answer to our role of indicators question. Emerging analysis reveals also the surprising discovery that in fields characterized by particularly integrated forms of coordination and standardization (Whitley, 2000)– like our molecular biologists – indicators in fact have the propensity to function as a core feature of the knowledge making process. For instance, a performance indicator like the journal impact factor was routinely mobilized informally in researchers’ decision-making as an ad hoc standard against which to evaluate the likely uses of information and resources, and in deciding whether time and resources should be spent pursuing them. By contrast in the less centralized and integrated field statistical research such an indicator was not so indispensable to routines of knowledge making activities. In the case of the statisticians it is possible to speculate that indicators are more likely to emerge intermittently as conditions to be met for gaining social and cultural acceptance by external agencies, but are less likely to inform day-to-day decisions. Through our ongoing analysis we aim to unpack further how disciplinary practices interact with organisation of Dutch UMCs to produce quite varying engagements with indicators.

The extent to which indicators play central/peripheral roles in research production processes across academic contexts is an important sociological problem to be posed in order to enhance understanding of the complex role of performance indicators in academic life. We feel much of the existing literature on evaluation of public organisations has tended to paint an exaggerated picture of formal evaluation and research metrics as synonymous with empty ritual and legitimacy (e.g. Dahler-Larsen, 2012). Emerging results here show that – at least in the realm of knowledge production- the picture is more subtle. This theoretical insight will prompt us to suggest further empirical studies are needed of scholarly fields with different patterns of work organisation in order to compare our results and develop middle-range theorizing on the mechanisms through which metrics infiltrate knowledge production processes to fundamental or peripheral degrees. In future this could mean venturing into fields far outside of biomedicine, such as history, literature, or sociology. For now though we look forward to expanding the biomedical project, by conducting analogous case studies from a second UMC.

Indeed it is through such theoretical developments that we can consider not only the appropriateness of one-size-fits-all models of performance evaluation, but also unpack and problematize discourses about what constitutes ‘misuse’ of metrics. And indeed how convinced should we be that academic life is now saturated and dominated by deleterious metric indicators? 


DAHLER-LARSEN, P. 2012. The evaluation society, Stanford, California, Stanford Business Books, an imprint of Stanford University Press.

 WHITLEY, R. 2000. The intellectual and social organization of the sciences, Oxford England ; New York, Oxford University Press.

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