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CAUT Bulletin Archives

February 2007

A Research Idea the Brits Can Keep

By W. Wesley Pue
Britain’s recent move to replace its expensive Research Assessment Exercise with a cheaper “research metrics” formula for evaluating research productivity provides a disturbing and, perhaps, dangerous precedent.

Whatever its presumed merits in the United Kingdom, any plan to evaluate scholarship on the basis of “research income, postgraduate numbers and bibliometrics” (citation counts) would produce nonsense outcomes in Canada.

Scholarship produced by diverse methods and directed to enormously varied problems cannot be measured by the leveling device of research income. This measure will inevitably lead to an academic hierarchy that places gadget-intensive sciences at the top, positivist social science in the middle, and humanities at the bottom. Many historians, philosophers, and the like find distraction, not assistance, in the data banks, developmental workshops and armies of employed researchers, or funded graduate students that accompany large research budgets in their disciplines.

As for bibliometrics, it tends to follow fashion rather than merit. The simple fact that most English-language academics and most English-language journals in most disciplines are in the United States distorts enormously. The extraordinary parochialism of U.S. academics renders historical research on Riel’s rebellion or the development of responsible government in Canada, for example, unworthy. Pursuing such questions is akin to professional suicide in a bibliometric world: rational historians, wherever they may be, must focus their energies on fashionable U.S. topics.
Similar forces are at play, albeit on a different scale, in many areas of British studies. Regardless of quality, scholars governed by “metrics” are ill-advised to publish in British journals, much less Canadian or Australian ones. Just as U.S. journals rule, so too do topics of interest to a mass readership of American academics.
And yet, Canada matters — at least to the people who live here — and Britain has mattered enormously in the history of the world. Humanities scholarship needs to be saved from the enormous condescension of a uni-polar world.
Finally, an obvious point. Like bibliometrics, graduate students follow fashion, not excellence. Legal scholars had better work on constitutional law or law and economics in preference to trust doctrine, 15th century legal scholarship, or standards of review in administrative law, for example. Although smart students will always seek out excellent supervisors, “quality” has little to do with the fields they will choose to focus on. Although fashions change, they do so on a timescale bearing little relation to either funding cycles or academic careers.
In short, whatever its merits in Britain, the evaluation of research by metrics in Canada’s social sciences and humanities discipline would systematically undervalue excellent work and occasionally elevate palpable nonsense. It would systematically undervalue Canada itself.

W. Wesley Pue is professor of law, associate dean for graduate studies and research, and holds the Nathan T. Nemetz Chair in Legal History at the University of British Columbia.

The views expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily CAUT.

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