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Queen Mary, University of London in The Times. Does Simon Gaskell care?

July 30th, 2012 · 16 Comments

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A lot of people from around the world ready my last post, Is Queen Mary University of London trying to commit scientific suicide?. Nonetheless, the mainstream media reach a different audience. They are still needed. Oddly enough, the Guardian Higher Education section didn’t seem very interested. For a paper that publishes Polly Toynbee and George Monbiot, the education section is surprisingly establishment-orientated. So is Times Higher Education, especially now the excellent Zoe Corbyn has left.

The Times, however, welcomed it. On Monday 30 July, the following much shortened version of the blog appeared. And in the Thunderer column, no less (again). Two of the most irritating things about writing for papers are the lack of links, and the often silly titles chosen by sub-editors not the author. [download pdf].

Times 300712

There are moments when the way a university runs its affairs is so boneheaded that it deserves scorn far beyond the world of academia. Queen Mary University of London is selecting which staff to sack from its science departments in a way that I can describe only as insane.

The firings, it seems, are nothing to do with hard financial times, but are a ham-fisted attempt to raise Queen Mary’s ranking in the league tables. A university’s position is directly related to its government research funding. So Queen Mary’s managers hope to do well in the 2014 “Research Excellence Framework” by firing staff who don’t publish a paper every ten minutes.

To survive as a professor there you need to have published 11 papers during 2008 to 2011, of which at least two are “high quality”. For lecturers, the target for keeping your job is five papers, of which one is “high quality”. You must also have had at least one PhD student complete their thesis.

What Queen Mary defines as “high quality” is publication in “high-impact journals” (periodicals that get lots of citations). Journals such as Nature and Science get most of their citations from very few articles, so it is utterly brainless to base decisions about the quality of research from such a skewed distribution of citations. But talk of skewed distribution is, no doubt, a bit too technical for innumerate HR people to understand. Which is precisely why they should have nothing to do with assessing scientists.

I have been lucky to know well three Nobel prizewinners. None would have passed the criteria laid down for a professor by QMUL. They would have been fired and so would Peter Higgs.

More offensive still is that you can buy immunity if you have had 26 papers published in 2008-11, with six being “high quality”. The encouragement to publish reams is daft. If you are publishing a paper every few weeks, you certainly are not writing them, and possibly not even reading them. Most likely you are appending your name to somebody else’s work with little or no checking of the data, let alone contributing real research.

It is also deeply unethical for Queen Mary to require all staff to have a PhD student with the aim of raising the university’s ranking rather than of benefitting the student.

Like so much managerialism, the rules are an active encouragement to dishonesty. The dimwitted assessment methods of Queen Mary will guarantee the creation of a generation of second-rate spiv scientists. Who in their right mind would want to work there, now that the way it treats its scientists is public knowledge?

David Colquhoun is Professor of Pharmacology at University College London

 

Follow-up

August 3 2012 A response from Simon Gaskell appeared in the letter column of The Times.

Publication of research findings is only one criterion in a range of expectations within the realm of academia

Sir, Professor Colquhoun is entitled to question the value of publishing in academic journals and the role this plays in academia (Thunderer, July 30). However, some will wish to understand more of the background of the criticism he levelled at Queen Mary, University of London. QM is ranked in the top dozen or so research universities in the UK, as judged by the last Research Assessment Exercise. To continue making this contribution and to ensure that our students receive the finest research-led education, we’ve had to address a small number of academic areas where performance doesn’t match expectations. And in a challenging environment for higher education, we need to safeguard QM’s financial stability.

We have applied objective criteria to the assessment of individual academic performance. These criteria are based on generally recognised academic expectations that take account of differences between disciplines and have been applied in a manner that acknowledges the imprecision of any such measures. Publication of research findings was only one criterion.

We are now investing in those areas that have been restructured with a focus on establishing strengths in the medium to long term that will continue to benefit not only our students but broader society and will make best use of our resources, both public and private.

Professor Simon J. Gaskell
Principal, Queen Mary, University of London

I fear that Gaskell has just dug himself deeper in the pit of his own making. Here is the letter I have submitted for publication. I left a similar online comment, which has already appeared.

Sir.

Professor Gaskell (Letters, August 3) tries to defend his actions at Queen Mary, University of London by saying "We have applied objective criteria to the assessment of individual academic performance. These criteria are based on generally recognised academic expectations". Nothing could be further from the truth. It is most certainly not "generally recognised" that you can measure the worth of a scientist by simply counting the number of papers they produce, or by looking at the impact factor of the journal in which they appear. I’m afraid Professor Gaskell appears to be totally out of touch with the literature about such matters.

The Research Excellence Framework says explicitly "No sub-panel will make any use of journal impact factors, rankings, lists or the perceived standing of publishers in assessing the quality of research outputs". Furthermore the REF allows submission of only four papers, and tries to assess their quality. Production of a large number of salami-sliced papers would hinder, not help. His actions appear to harm rather than help his university’s chances in the REF.

Gaskell’s says also that he wants to "ensure that our students receive the finest research-led education". But we all know that someone who produces the large number of publications that he demands is unlikely to have either the time or the inclination to teach students too.

Then, of course, there is the dubious legality of declaring a person "redundant" while advertising an essentially identical job. The word for his process is firing, not redundancy.

I see no reason to change my view (Thunderer July 30) that Professor Gaskell is bringing his university into disrepute.

David Colquhoun

August 3 2012 A correspondent write to me to point out an article that described the management methods that led to a lost decade by Microsoft. They are remarkably similar to those being imposed at Queen Mary.

"It leads to employees focusing on competing with each other rather than competing with other companies.”

It’s unfortunate that university managers so often seem to latch on to ideas that have already been discredited in industry.

August 6 2012. The Times hasn’t published my response, but they did publish today a letter from Professor Gavin Vinson, of Queen Mary. I was too kind to mention the obvious absurdity of Gaskell’s first sentence. Now it has been done..

Published at 12:01AM, August 6 2012

Judging scientists

No one disputes the value of publishing in science and academia. However, all opinions need to havea basis in fact to support them

Sir,   Professor Simon Gaskell (letter, Aug 3) says, “Professor Colquhoun is entitled to question the value of publishing in academic journals and the role this plays in academia” (Thunderer, July 30). Try as I might, I have failed to find the basis for this statement in Professor Colquhoun’s article, or indeed anywhere else come to that. No one disputes the value of publishing in science and academia. What is in dispute is the use of spurious metrics in evaluating scientists.

Professor Gavin P. Vinson
London N10

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Tags: Queen Mary · Simon Gaskell

16 responses so far ↓

  • 1 bwills // Jul 30, 2012 at 12:07

    As editor of a peer-reviewed scientific journal, I have ranted many times on the MEI blog (www.min-eng.blogspot.com)about the insane need for academics to publish at all costs, which has led to a profusion of cases of plagiarism and multiple- submissions, and the almost total reliance on impact factor in choosing where to publish their material. So your excellent blog posting has come as no real surprise.

    I have taken the liberty of posting your article verbatim on the MEI blog (http://min-eng.blogspot.co.uk/2012/07/is-this-scientific-suicide.html) in the hope that it will arouse further debate.

  • 2 Fanis // Jul 30, 2012 at 14:10

    Jack Grove reports in the Times Higher Education that Professor Larissa Fradkin was unfairly dismissed in a restructure that increased the number of posts. Dean Rao Bhanidimarri of London South Bank University is identified as the manager in charge on this case.

    http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?sectioncode=26&storycode=420664&c=1

    From the comments that follow this THE article, it transpires that the problem of university mismanagement is more widespread than what I first thought.

    Readers take it for granted that University management systems in the UK are allowed to operate outside of employment Law, paying back damages to those few who challenge them.

    Does one need to be prepared to uphold unlawful procedures in order to qualify to become the leader of a University?

    If the answer is negative, as I hope, then those Vice-Chancellors who have so to speak ‘clean’ hands and conscience should step in the debate and separate ranks from those who “bend and twist” the Law – to an editorial expression from the Lancet piece that started the series of public revelations over Simon Gaskell’s tenure.

    http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(12)60517-0/fulltext

  • 3 David Bignell // Jul 30, 2012 at 17:02

    It’s very good that this issue has now reached the national papers, albeit in fewer words than it really deserves. Here are some additional points of information:

    1. Queen Mary did very well in RAE 2008, excepting two areas. These were Engineering and Biological Sciences (including Chemistry). Coincidentally the College (as it is known, once being Queen Mary College) was formulating plans to join the Russell Group (now successfully achieved), and a new Principal (Simon Gaskell) was appointed in 2010, replacing Sir Adrian Smith.

    2. Engineering and Biological Sciences both suffered from underinvestment in research, and both had teaching issues (Biological Sciences had too many students and Engineering too few). They were repeatedly told that investment on the scale required to transform their research was not affordable.

    3. Gaskell introduced a new senior management team, who began to restructure both areas (with a parallel exercise in Medicine and Dentistry for good measure). The stated aim is to place the respective Schools in the top 20 among UK universities by RAE 2014 and in the top 10 by RAE 2020.

    4. The methodology employed is highly controversial in that a) it is based on metrics
    of publication and grant income which are widely disputed, with the addition of subjective criteria which appear designed to protect some individuals but penalise others, when any rational assessment would rank these people equally and b) it is retrospective, i.e. staff are assessed on their performance between 2008 and 2011 by a set of criteria not known to them or made part of their personal appraisal targets at any point during this window.

    5. Staff failing the assessment (or its future variants) are to be replaced almost immediately, and before the submission deadline for RAE 2014. The scale of the turnover is large enough to be seriously disruptive and hugely expensive. How the costs can now be afforded is unclear, but the assumption is that £9K fees for UG students will provide the funds. Teaching costs are to be correspondingly reduced.

    6. No-one seriously challenges the need for improvements: the arguments are entirely about methodology i.e. how to bring about change and retain the morale of the workforce.

    7. The management is silent in the face of all comments about and challenges to their methods. Their reasons for evading criticism, rather than meeting it head on, are not clear. Disciplinary proceedings have been instituted against two academics who published a complaint in the widely read medical journal The Lancet.

  • 4 David Colquhoun // Jul 30, 2012 at 22:04

    I suspect that the reason that the “management is silent in the face of all comments” is that they must realise by now that they’ve made a bad mistake. Had they been aware of the literature on the topic, they’d never have tried to assess people in the way they have. I suspect that they are also blissfully unaware of how difficult it is to keep things secret in the era of the internet.

    They also seem to be totally unaware of the importance of morale in any organisation.

    In other words, they aren’t very good managers.

    It’s really the job of Council to reign in VCs who are not doing a good job. That has occasionally happened. Let’s hope.

  • 5 David Bignell // Aug 3, 2012 at 08:25

    Simon Gaskell replies thus in The Times of 3 August:

    Sir, Professor Colquhoun is entitled to question the value of publishing in academic journals and the role this plays in academia (Thunderer, July 30). However, some will wish to understand more of the background of the criticism he levelled at Queen Mary, University of London. QM is ranked in the top dozen or so research universities in the UK, as judged by the last Research Assessment Exercise. To continue making this contribution and to ensure that our students receive the finest research-led education, we’ve had to address a small number of academic areas where performance doesn’t match expectations. And in a challenging environment for higher education, we need to safeguard QM’s financial stability.

    We have applied objective criteria to the assessment of individual academic performance. These criteria are based on generally recognised academic expectations that take account of differences between disciplines and have been applied in a manner that acknowledges the imprecision of any such measures. Publication of research findings was only one criterion.

    We are now investing in those areas that have been restructured with a focus on establishing strengths in the medium to long term that will continue to benefit not only our students but broader society and will make best use of our resources, both public and private.

    Professor Simon J. Gaskell
    Principal, Queen Mary, University of London
    3 August 2012 00:43

    I would say only that Gaskell’s reply comprises more or less a repetition of the tired slogans we have been offered for the last 12 months. The emphasis on the student experience is less than honest, as teaching is to be deliberately downgraded in favour of enforced research. There is also a contradiction in saying that the restructuring criteria were objective (his words), and then in the same paragraph acknowledging that they are imprecise (also his words). At least his letter is literate, unlike the many effusions we have seen from QMUL HR. It is also, as far as I know, his first official comment on the whole business.

  • 6 R. Ashworth // Aug 3, 2012 at 14:48

    Here is some more background on the restructuring at Queen Mary…

    Letter to THES 26th April 2012

    “The School of Biological and Chemical Sciences at Queen Mary, University of London displays the Athena Swan Bronze Award on its website, demonstrating its commitment to the advancement of women in science. Of 76 academic staff in the school, 10 are female. Three “roles” currently performed by female academics are “at risk” in Queen Mary’s current round of restructuring, and two female researchers are being “offered” teaching and scholarship positions. These women have strong publication records, grant income and high teaching loads. Thus, we question whether reviews in the school have been “fair and transparent” and followed “due process”.”

    http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?sectioncode=26&storycode=419760

    The obvious gender discrimination highlights the fact that the criteria were chosen subjectively and have penalised certain groups within the school. In light of these and the other facts presented I doubt whether the restructuring will “benefit not only our students but broader society and will make best use of our resources, both public and private”.

  • 7 stephenemoss // Aug 4, 2012 at 11:30

    I think it is worth reiterating the point that the managerial mayhem at QMUL is not just unfair on those academics facing disciplinary action or dismissal, it is also highly damaging to the reputation of the University. I am aware of several talented young investigators, at senior post-doc level, who might normally have been tempted to apply for the posts lavishly advertised in Nature recently, but who instead are looking elsewhere.

  • 8 physo // Aug 7, 2012 at 22:14

    David,
    I fear that QMUL are silent not because they realise they’ve blundered but because they think they’re essentially right to do what they’re doing and don’t care about winning a public argument.
    They likely think that these measures will, by and large, get rid of those they have already identified as weak/trouble makers etc. even if their policies are somewhat blunt.

    Taking action in the face of opposition can also be regarded as sign of strong management. I’m sure this is how they regard it.

    Its to your credit that you’re convinced that they must see the error of their ways because first principle arguments based on experience and knowledge of the sector indicate that they are wrong. However, I think you’re being naive in assuming that people like these will change their minds because of well motivated arguments. They now have too much credibility to lose by changing course and likely don’t question their own beliefs too much.

    You should also bear in mind that they will likely have moved on to other jobs by the time the long term problems produced by these measures appear. In the short term they will probably see some improvement in some metric somewhere and pat themselves on the back for a job well done.

    The thought that keeps on coming back to me again and again is that if I knew that this is how academia would turn out I would have chosen another profession.

  • 9 David Colquhoun // Aug 8, 2012 at 00:51

    @physo
    I don’t know whether the QMUL managers read the references that I sent them. Quite possibly not: people like that are often not very interested in evidence.

    But whether or not they have realised that their actions won’t achieve their aims, they must surely have realised that they have made a major PR blunder.

    I fear that it may be too late to help the people who have been mistreated, and I’m sure that Gaskell’s vanity wouldn’t allow him to change his mind (though it is still just possible that Council could reign him in, or even fire him, because of the damage he’s done to QMUL).

    The main aim of the pressure at this stage is to act as a warning to the many other universities who are attempting, albeit on a smaller scale, to make similar mistakes. Dans ce pays-ci, il est bon de tuer de temps en temps un amiral vice chancellor pour encourager les autres.

  • 10 David Bignell // Aug 8, 2012 at 19:11

    Some more points of information:

    1. QMUL is ultimately governed by its Council. Recent changes have reduced the representation of the academic staff and increased the number of external members, who supposedly represent a business-orientated stakeholder community.

    2. Elected Deans have been replaced by appointed Deans. Several of these are outside appointments from universities which are held to have been successful in “managing” their research performance (and therefore by implication their RAE/REF ranking).

    3. The restructuring process has been discussed in Council (I think at the request of the President of the Student Union), but suggestions that the process was too brutal and imprecise were brushed aside by the Principal, who stated that he had full confidence in his team. This means the new Deans and at least one (new) Head of School.

    4. The restructuring process has produced some anomalies. Notably, at least three academics declared unfit for research by metrics can readily show by other measures that they are very highly regarded in their fields. In two cases the mismatch between the metrics and peer evaluation is blatant.

    5. Restructuring is linked to a new scheme of performance management. The details are still being formulated, but in its raw form it means frequent appraisals and centrally imposed, strictly enforced targets, including the selection of journals to which the results of research will be submitted. Failure to meet targets and not immediately corrected will be construed as prima facie evidence of redundancy.

    Now my opinions:

    1. My own few personal contacts with Professor Gaskell have been cordial. He appears genuinely interested in promoting both research and teaching. Notably, he told me that disagreement and debate within the academic community over how to promote better research and teaching was a healthy sign.

    2. Oddly, debate about restructuring at QMUL has been entirely one-sided. The dissidents have made the issue public, now even engaging the national press, but until the Principal’s response in The Times the management has remained silent in the face of all criticism. This looks like an own-goal for the managers, but we don’t know where the advice to ignore the barrage of adverse comment came from.

    3. It’s not impossible to turn the situation around, but it is late in the day. Twenty colleagues have already been identified for redundancy, early retirement or demotion in Biological and Chemical Sciences alone. It would take a great act of courage for the Principal to abandon this process.

    4. Even if the present process continues, the war is far from over. The fundamentals in the Schools concerned (Biological and Chemical Sciences, Engineering, Medicine and Dentistry) will not have been changed, hence the promised improvements in research ratings will probably not materiailse. There will then be blood-letting among the managers, as well as the academics, and the reputation of the institution will decline, Russell Group or not.

    But in case you doubted it:

    Queen Mary remains a fine institution, with huge achievements in its past and present, and doubtless its future too. Its strength is in its difference from the “big name” London institutions (Imperial, University College, Kings College). In the Mile End Road you can (or you could) relax from the torrid grasp of your Principals, Deans and Heads, and find your own way forward. The record shows this works. Why mess it up?

    .

  • 11 Larissa Fradkin // Aug 10, 2012 at 23:04

    Many comments have been published over the past two weeks in response to the THE article

    http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.aspsectioncode=26&storycode=420664&c=1

    and similar articles in THE, the Guardian and now Times about Queen Mary’s situation. They all reveal a consistent pattern. The unlawful “restructuring” that was conducted by Professor Rao Bhamidimarri and London South Bank University HR (Katie Boyce, Joanne Monk, Claire Stace) in 2009 with the blessing of Professor Martin Earwicker (who during the hearing displayed blissful ignorance of what the Law expects of CEOs when considering appeals) relied on the same slogans and scripts as the “restructuring” at Queen Mary’s and other Universities. Interestingly, similar to Queen Mary’s, our professoriate performed unusually well at RAE 2008, quadrupling our QR income.

    The issue of assessing performance of researchers, although a difficult and important one, is only mudding the waters. IF THERE IS A REDUNDANCY SITUATION (and if a person had been fired and their job has been readvertised, there isn’t any) USING PERFORMANCE CRITERIA AS SELECTION CRITERIA IS UNLAWFUL (read my Tribunal Judgement – wordpress.backtohigher.com) This is what an appraisal procedure is for.

    Also, if the management had been truly interested in good REF results they would have tried to use similar assessment criteria to those advanced by REF panels and would have tried to retain staff that had been successful in RAE. They would have tried to improve staff morale. Those who don’t treat Universities as their fiefdoms, faking redundancy and restructuring processes to create their teams of loyal subjects.

    Very simple lessons from history explain why: absolute power corrupts absolutely. Most University Senior Managers can squander taxpayer’s money without being accountable to anyone and are highly renumerated. There is no obvious correlation between their personal interests and interests of their institutions. Positions like these attract those who enjoy ruling in the atmosphere of fear and subjugation. You have to be really lucky to get an occasional genuine problem solver.

    Why does management not engage in public debate? Why should they? Theirs is the power and financial glory. Also, all they can do is to keep repeating a few meaningless slogans. If they deviate from their scripts they produce meaningless statements – of the type Professor Gaskell did in the first two lines of his response. Of the type Professors Rao Bhamidimarri and Martin Earwicker, Joanne Monk, Rob Best and last but not least, Professor Tom Barnes of Greenwich did during my hearing, leaving the Tribunal bemused and baffled.

    What is the solution? I suggest … democracy. Give real power to all involved: students, support staff, academics, professors (don’t know why they are not considered academics) and yes, even managers. But not just them.

  • 12 physo // Aug 11, 2012 at 16:55

    @David C.
    I don’t think that QMUL care in the slightest about losing the PR battle.

    I also doubt that other university managers are watching this and thinking “better avoid doing the same thing at my place”. They are more likely to admire QMUL for having driven through the changes. After all, QMUL is now a Russell Group institution and is clearly going places….

    I’m sorry to be a glass-half-empty commentator. I’m usually rather optimistic. Also, I’ve done my share of writing protest letters on behalf of the victimised QMUL staff. However, I don’t think its possible to turn back the tide. There are too many managers (and young academics) who simply don’t appreciate the importance of academic freedom. Furthermore, this situation is going to get worse as these attitudes become increasingly ingrained.

  • 13 David Bignell // Aug 13, 2012 at 08:26

    @everyone

    There has to be light in the darkness somewhere. In my own career, there were difficult moments but when one door closed another opened. On the other hand, this was all in my (relative) youth and the young have an inbuilt optimism. How do you advise a 40-something or 50-something colleague with a good track record, who nevertheless faces the sack or years of teaching-only status. I can’t see that staying on in the higher education system (in any capacity) is realistic. One would always be haunted by a sense of underachievement. Years ago one went to the ex-colonies, where with a little luck and effort you could put together a half decent academic career, but that market has largely disappeared as our imperial history recedes into the dim past. Heaven knows, bright people are not exactly two a penny: try dealing with the government bureaucracy or any service industry. But there must be an answer.

    Twenty years ago the School of Biological Sciences at QMUL was downsized by a whopping 50% (how this department suffers!). It was smaller then, so the number of casualties was the same as now, about 20 academic staff. Of these, only two individuals failed to find other jobs or other walks of life. One has become quite a successful artist and another an expert on Chinese porcelain. Some actually did better for leaving, with at least two gaining Chairs elsewhere. It will be interesting to see what happens to the current cohort of “metric rejects”.

    As a joke, I am recommending people try the care industry or the prison service. Either way they might meet their former managers in a few years time!

  • 14 In which Simon Gaskell, of Queen Mary, University of London, makes a cock-up // Aug 16, 2012 at 01:02

    […] sc_project=233721; sc_invisible=0; sc_partition=0; sc_security=""; ← Queen Mary, University of London in The Times. Does Simon Gaskell care? […]

  • 15 Andrew // Aug 16, 2012 at 22:11

    Anyone interested in the relationship betwen managaers and academics might be interested in reading ‘The Fall of the Faculty
    The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why It Matters’ by
    Benjamin Ginsberg

    ISBN13: 9780199782444
    ISBN10: 019978244X

  • 16 Innocent spin for a big laugh or public display of dishonesty? | fanismissirlis // Dec 19, 2014 at 20:18

    […] of Queen Mary University of London to the recent announcement of the REF outcomes reminded me of David Colquhoun’s Questions: Is the University trying to commit scientific suicide? Does Simon Gaskell care? “Simon […]

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