Monday 10 February 2014

GLOBAL: The abuses of research evaluation

Yves Gingras07 February 2014 Issue No:306

The famous Shanghai Academic Ranking of World Universities, in which French institutions have not covered themselves in glory, made quite an impact when it was launched on the media and academic world in 2003. Since then, the debates around the various rankings of higher education institutions have continued.

Last August the French minister of research commented on this annual ranking, noting that French universities were slowly climbing the ladder, according to France Info – without explaining what that really meant in academic terms.

Many articles have, however, pointed out the perverse effects of the race to head rankings whose scientific value is almost zero.

An investigation by the American journal Science, published on 9 December 2011, showed for example that universities in Saudi Arabia had contacted highly cited researchers who were employed by other institutions around the world asking them to add the address of their institution to publications in exchange for a substantial fee.

Dummy affiliations

Such dummy affiliations, with no real impact on teaching and research in universities, allow marginal institutions to boost their position in the rankings of universities without having to develop any real scientific activities!

The researchers involved are complicit in practices that are more than ethically dubious. Bad faith allows some to defend themselves by saying that these ‘associate professor’ titles have only a symbolic value and promote collaboration, but few are really dupes since it is clear they are paid for lending their name and fame to institutions with which they have no really serious link – like months of local teaching or in situ research activities.

Less well known, and certainly less well documented publicly, is that accreditation bodies and rankings of business and management schools generate the same kind of immoral practices.

For although we could understand – even if we may disagree – that an academic institution might believe that it is useful to offer ‘productivity’ premiums to its researchers who publish in journals considered ‘prestigious’ to improve their visibility in a globalised scientific field, it is difficult to defend the negotiation of (formal or informal) agreements with researchers from other institutions simply so they can add an address to their publications in exchange for money.

I discovered this relatively hidden practice during the writing of my book Les dérives de l’évaluation de la rechercheThe Abuses of Research Evaluation – just published by Raisons d’agir in Paris.

I learned in conversations with colleagues that some business schools and management faculties in France – and maybe elsewhere? – were using such practices, contacting some productive foreign researchers to ask them to add their addresses in exchange for relatively large amounts of money (several thousand euros per item!).

It is not surprising that business and management school staff, who are ‘knowledgeable’ in the field of commerce, have learned to monetise the symbolic capital of the most prominent researchers.

This is not a problem when the institution in question is really committed to this researcher and offers him or her a real job that allows the researcher to contribute directly to teaching and research that students of that institution can enjoy.

It is quite another thing when the goal is simply to improve their position in a ranking, or maintain accreditation, by artificially inflating the number of their publications in targeted magazines.

Intellectual fraud?

One wonders if this kind of activity does not in fact constitute a kind of intellectual fraud that is incompatible with the mission of an institution of higher education. Because even assuming that it is now necessary to engage in an academic boxing match, all blows should at least be above the belt...

Moreover, institutions that (wrongly) take their position in these rankings seriously do not seem aware of the unintended consequences and perverse effects they automatically generate, including the ironic result that some of their employees are contributing to improving the position of their ‘competitors’.

And if we cannot count on the moral fibre of directors and teaching staff to put an end to this situation, one would think that it is in the interests of institutions that are [artificially] in competition with each other in the rankings market to take steps to ensure that their researchers are not double agents.

After having worked hard to encourage researchers to clearly put their institutional address on publications so that the symbolic benefits are attributed to the right institution, it seems that the abuses of research evaluation will now force those same institutions to verify the validity and over-use of such addresses on these publications!

* Yves Gingras is a professor at the University of Quebec at Montreal, Centre interuniversitaire de recherche sur la science et la technologie (CIRST) and scientific director at l'Observatoire des sciences et des technologies (OST-UQAM). He has just published Les dérives de l'évaluation de la recherche. Du bon usage de la bibliométrie. This open letter was first published in Liberation.

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