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CAUT Bulletin Archives

June 2011

How Should Research Be Organised?

Donald Gillies. London, UK: College Publications, 2008; 152 pp; ISBN: 978-1-90498-727-7, paper £12.

Reviewed by Will Low

This book gives a distinctively British perspective on the challenges of administering and facilitating research output, focusing on the research assessment exercise (RAE) used in the UK for more than two decades. Authored by Donald Gillies, an expert on the philosophy of science and technology, the arguments presented will be of interest to anyone working in an academic research setting.

The Higher Education Funding Council for England describes the RAE as a system designed “to produce ratings of research quality which will be used by the higher education funding bodies in determining the main grant for research to the institutions they fund.”

Gillies skips over the mechanics of the system to hone in on a sweeping criticism of the peer review process. In his opinion, peer review suppresses radical pathbreaking research in favour of possibly worthy but essentially pedestrian “normal research.” Systems such as the RAE that rely on peer review as the main element of assessment to measure quality in order to inform allocations of funding and research leave only exacerbate the tentative nature of progress through research.

Peer review encourages researchers to be conservative about their research programs (producing “epicycles” that focus on existing avenues of research) rather than push the boundaries because pushing boundaries risks having reviewers either not understand the proposed new direction or reject it because it contradicts the received wisdom.

Among several interesting case studies presented to support his viewpoint, Gillies cites Frege’s introduction of modern mathematical logic, Semmelweiss’ work on antisepsis, and Fleming’s discovery of penicillin. In the first two cases he argues that peer review rejected the researchers’ findings, while in the last case a system which imposes strict rules on applying for research funding would have stifled Fleming’s willingness to pursue a serendipitous avenue of inquiry which led to a fundamental breakthrough.

He also cites the incredible implicit cost of the peer review system to argue against its use in general, and against the RAE (review panels are convened to cover in 69 academic areas). He argues for peer review to be used early in a research career to establish “credibility” which gives way to an open access approach to disseminating research findings. This helps to ensure “diamonds” are not thrown out with the dross — valid and valuable research that is rejected by peer review in efforts to weed out superfluous research.

Because the significance of a line of research might only be realized after 30 years or so, it is better to promote as much research as possible, the author argues. Supporters of the RAE approach may well argue that the overall quantity of research outputs in UK universities did indeed rise as a result, although the intent was to raise quality.

Gillies allows that not everyone within higher education can or should be aiming for research outputs as conventionally conceived through journal articles and scholarly books, but may instead opt to use their research time to undertake scholarly endeavours that enrich their teaching programs.

This intellectual tour through a sweeping history of philosophical and scientific research is entertaining and enjoyable. The author has a tendency toward repetition of some points but this can be forgiven in appreciating the detailed and complex examination of the RAE and his proposed alternative to peer review.

However, I believe the book would benefit from a complementary political/public policy analysis of the rationale underpinning the RAE. The lifetime of the RAE (from 1986 to 2008) witnessed the expansion of the “university” system in many countries; polytechnics in the UK and colleges of advanced education in Australia were granted university status for example. Faculty members not previously expected to produce published research were now employed on terms which included paid research time.

The research assessment approach is a classic response to public sector budget constraints and demands of value for money. It ostensibly created competition among the different institutions to allocate the available pool of research funding efficiently.

One could also argue the RAE served merely to legitimize funding regimes that favoured already advantaged universities. Not surprisingly, the usual suspects (the 20 Russell Group universities) consistently topped the RAE every time and together now receive two-thirds of research grant and contract funding in the UK.

It is unlikely a research assessment exercise like that established in the UK will emerge in Canada, or the United States because of strong provincial and state jurisdiction over universities. Countries that have introduced a RAE approach, such as the Netherlands, Denmark and Australia, are characterized by much more centralized systems of research funding and have attracted increased criticism in recent years.

Will Low is professor of sustainable business practice at Royal Roads University, in Victoria, British Columbia, with special interest in the fair trade movement.