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In which Simon Gaskell, of Queen Mary, University of London, makes a cock-up

August 16th, 2012 · 11 Comments

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The row about redundancies firings at Queen Mary rumbles on.

I’ve already written about it twice in Is Queen Mary University of London trying to commit scientific suicide?, and in Queen Mary, University of London in The Times. Does Simon Gaskell care?. But wait, there is more to come.

The harm done to teaching at Queen Mary was outlined in a report written at the request of Simon Gaskell. He appears to have ignored it entirely. So let’s concentrate on research.

Some explanation of the bizarre behaviour of the Queen Mary management can be gleaned from Queen Mary’s Frequently Asked Questions:
Restructures and Reviews in Academic Departments 2011-12. This says

“research-related metrics” used in the School of Biological and Chemical Sciences are the result of “extensive consultation with staff and include both the Australian [Research Council] journal classification system as well as impact factor”.

Let’s skip over the fact that the "extensive consultation" was largely sham. That’s standard procedure (and not only in universities).

Australian journal classification

The reference to the Australian journal classification is revealing. Australia has been noted in the past for being one of the worst places for abuse of publication metrics. Its 2010 Journal classification was utterly bizarre [download Excel]. It ranks 20,712 journals as being A*, A, B, or C (did the rankers really look at all of them?).

I’ll take one example from my own area: the Journal of General Physiology is probably one of the most-respected journals for electrophysiology with emphasis on mechanisms. Many of its papers are quite mathematical. In its niche, it is hugely respected for the quality of papers and for its high integrity [declaration of interest, I’m an editor, and was hugely flattered by that honour]. But the Australian 2010 list ranks the Journal of General Physiology as B, the same as Brain Research, British Journal of Religious Education and Chinese Medicine (a journal of quack medicine).

In contrast, the Nature journals all get A*, as do many review journals which don’t publish original research at all. But if you can’t get a paper into Nature, there are other A* journals that might help you keep your job, for example Television and New Media, or Tourism Management as well as some joke journals like the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine and Complementary Therapies in Medicine.

No doubt you’ll find similar ludicrous anomalies in your own field.

Simon Gaskell has not answered emails from me, and he hasn’t answered those from his own staff either, but he did emerge briefly from his shell last week, in The Times and at greater length in today’s Times Higher Education. The latter, though longer, consists almost entirely of the vapid self-congratulation which all vice-chancellors feel compelled to spout. Only one short paragraph is devoted to answering his critics.

“Where academic performance has been assessed, it has been important to do so on the basis of objective criteria including metrics – any subjective assessment would be quite unacceptable. These objective criteria were based on generally recognised academic expectations . . . “

I find it almost impossible to believe that a vice-chancellor should be so out of touch as to believe that counting papers, and using impact factors to judge people are “generally recognised”. The extent of the misunderstanding of metrics is illustrated by two statements for Matthew Evans, head of the School of Biological and Chemical Sciences. is quoted as saying:

“Impact factor reflects the number of times an average paper is cited, [so] is a good indication of how many citations a particular paper is likely to achieve,”

Anyone who understands the difference between mode, median and mean of the highly skewed distribution of citations would not make an elementary mistake like that. It is simply statistical illiteracy.

Evans also

"…described metrics as a “vital tool” in assessing academics’ contributions to research and “the only empirical way of measuring success in science”."

Is Matthew Evans not aware that there isn’t the slightest evidence that any metric predicts the future success of a scientist? It’s an evidence-free zone Perhaps he should read about how to test social interventions.

It’s certainly evident that Gaskell’s management team can’t use Google. After getting the hint about the use of Australian rankings, it took five minutes to discover this statement.

"On 30 May 2011, the decision not to use ranked outlets for ERA 2012 was announced".

It’s more than a year since Kim Carr, at that time the Australian minister for innovation, industry, science and research, announced the result of a review of the way the next ce of Research in Australia (ERA) exercise would be conducted by the Australian Research Council (ARC).

“There is clear and consistent evidence that the rankings were being deployed inappropriately within some quarters of the sector, in ways that could produce harmful outcomes, and based on a poor understanding of the actual role of the rankings. One common example was the setting of targets for publication in A and A* journals by institutional research managers.

“their existence was focussing ill-informed, undesirable behaviour in the management of research – I have made the decision to remove the rankings, based on the ARC’s expert advice”.

It seems that Professor Gaskell is unaware of this, since he is enforcing the very “ill-informed, undesirable behaviour in the management of research” that Australia has dropped.

That is what I’d call a major cock-up.

HEFCE also reviewed the role of metrics. Their pilot tests were, almost needless to say, not properly randomised, but the conclusion was much the same as in Australia. Is Gaskell not aware that REF instructions say

“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”

The very people Gaskell seeks to please have condemned strongly his methods.

If that is not “bringing your university into disrepute”, I don’t know what is.

The responses to Simon Gaskell

This week’s Times Higher Education published three letters in response to Gaskell’s article.

The lead letter was signed by thirteen Queen Mary academics. This gives the flavour.

“Here we point to the unintended consequences of restructuring already in evidence. These include undermining morale in the schools and departments concerned; the flight of talented colleagues to other institutions; the consignment of teaching to lecturers in casual employment or those deemed unfit for research; scandalous gender disparity; and the lopsided, counterproductive allocation of resources. When staff are dismissed, replacements can come only from other institutions that have been willing to invest in people, research and scholarship. As a part of normal academic life, mobility is acceptable, even desirable, but when enforced on the scale envisaged at Queen Mary, it is random slaughter offset by poaching.”

My letter described the cock-up over the ARC Journal classification.

The third letter was from Fanis Missirlis, who was co-authot of the Lancet letter, Queen Mary: nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition. As a result he was fired at one day’s notice. He is one of the academics whose “careers are destroyed by decimal points in spurious calculations”

The Queen Mary process was summed up rather well when the University of Sydney went through a similar convulsion. An Australian academic referred to

"retrenchment exercises driven by “crass, bureaucratic, quantifiable simulacra of genuine research”.


August 23 2012.

I see it is now official. One of the great stars of Queen Mary, Lisa Jardine, is leaving Queen Mary (and, as it happens, coming to UCL). Learn more about her in an interview with Laurie Taylor.

She discovered lost papers by the great renaissance scientist, Robert Hooke -watch the video.

20 December 2012

It seems that the predicted bad effects are coming true. Times Higher Education carries a letter from a biology undergraduate, Matthew James Erickson, which is highly critical of the effect of Gaskell’s policies on teaching at Queen Mary.

“From my perspective as a first-year undergraduate, the aggressive restructuring has had a profoundly negative effect on my opinion of my university.”

It is rather wonderful when a first year undergraduate dares to speak truth to power. Well done Matthew James Erickson.

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Tags: Academia · Queen Mary · Simon Gaskell

11 responses so far ↓

  • 1 David Bignell // Aug 16, 2012 at 13:06

    Several colleagues have asked me whether it is right to challenge our Principal in the public media (including this blog, which is freely accessible). Normally the answer would be no, except that when there is no other opportunity for sensible discussion, the press becomes the forum of last resort. I repeat that I have every confidence in Simon Gaskell’s commitment to high standards in teaching and research. What is in dispute is the methodology now being deployed to maintain and improve performance, not the aim itself.

    Queen Mary grows on you, whether you are staff or student. You hate it when you first arrive, then gradually you see the advantages of an institution with high standards but relaxed daily life. NOT being Imperial and NOT being UCL can be liberating, and the College’s greatest historical achievement has been the nurture of those who often didn’t quite make the top rank the first time around. This applies as much in research as in teaching.

    Sir Adrian Smith (the last Principal) said that what management does is often forced by outside pressures they cannot resist. This may be the case now, and the “outside pressure” is could be the implicit agenda of the Russell Group to corner not only the brightest students but also the entire resource available to support academic research in the UK, given that this will probably diminish before it eventually grows. Yet RAE 2008, if anything, showed that talent was widely distributed in the sector. The value of diversity is also clearly shown by the American model, for all its current faults, and needs to be defended.

  • 2 David Colquhoun // Aug 16, 2012 at 14:58

    It seems to me perfectly proper to challenge any idea in the media, including those of your boss. In fact it’s your duty to do so, and I congratulate you and your 12 colleagues on your courage.

    I’ve no doubt that you did what you could internally before going public. Sadly it is common for internal consultations to make little or no difference, and if one believes that a process is unfair then it’s essential to say so.

    The near-Stalinist reign of terror being imposed by Gaskell is simply not acceptable. What he doesn’t seem to have noticed is that it’s very hard to keep a secret these days. And thank heavens for that.

    It is your principal who is bringing Queen Mary into disrepute. You and your colleagues are, in contrast, demonstrating what a fine institution Queen Mary really is.

  • 3 Medical education: A minimalist manifesto (part 1) (TIJABP) - reestheskin // Aug 16, 2012 at 16:59

    […] university’ the value of what they do (lest they end up like those academics at Barts/ Queen Mary); the question of the skill mix or difference in background of those entering the field; the issue […]

  • 4 physo // Aug 16, 2012 at 19:59

    Surely the appropriate way to challenge QMUL is in the courts. Maybe I’ve missed some legal detail but this seems to be dismissal rather than redundancy.

    Is the union prepared to back a legal appeal against wrongful dismissal ?

  • 5 Guy Chapman // Aug 16, 2012 at 23:55

    What? Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine and Complementary Therapies in Medicine is A*?

    That is, quite literally, beyond satire.

  • 6 Guy Chapman // Aug 17, 2012 at 00:05

    @David Bignell: The fundamental problem with any attempt to ration scarce resource is that it always ends up as a bureaucracy. In an ideal world we would have a “cluocracy” where power and authority are vested in those who have the ever-elusive Clue; in practice the legalistic insistence on due process and objective criteria means the money goes to those who are best at playing the game, not necessarily those who are the best and brightest minds. I count myself fortunate to have as a friend a man who is both adept at gaining funding and a world class scientist (when we were at Southampton I bet him a fiver he’d be a full professor by the age of 40, I collected my fiver at his inagural lecture and he is now dean of medicine and biosciences at Cranfield). Unfortunately you cannot legislate or codify Clue. All you can do is trust that the best and brightest will vote with their feet, and not across the pond but to some place in the UK where people still look at people, not spreadsheets.

    I wish you and your colleagues the very best of luck. These days I am a geek, we have a piece of equipment known as a cluebat (or LART). You may be needing one.

  • 7 David Bignell // Aug 17, 2012 at 08:00

    @Graham Chapman

    Thanks you for your good wishes. I am happily retired now, which is one reason I can find the time to help defend my former colleagues. My career at QMUL was long, happy and productive. We also had a lot of fun, which makes a challenging work environment more acceptable, and as I allude to above, even beneficial. My post in the University of London spanned the period from the days when administrators were neat, polite ex-Army or ex-Colonial Civil Servce types who saw themselves as facilitators to the academic community, to the recent past when the so-called professional managers arrived spewing the jargon. Nostalgia for bettter days is part of later life, however I am under no illusion that well-fashioned critiques in the THE alone will bring immediate change. If the redundancies and the restructurings (“restructures” has anyone picked up this Gaskellism?) don’t stop, the battle simply moves on to a new phase when we look to see whether these draconian changes actually work. Of course there will be a metrics smokescreen laid down to conceal the truth, but I’m sure we can pick our way through that.

  • 8 51sorrows // Aug 30, 2012 at 19:11

    *Would the management at the universities in the recent discussions of achieving greatness like to hear what Peter Drucker said? 

    The purpose of an organisation is to make ordinary people do extra ordinary things. No organisation can depend on genius, supply is too scarce.

    1) make ordinary people perform better

    2) bring out strengths in people 

    3) neutralise individual weaknesses

    Focus on opportunities , not problems

    I have no idea if these ideas ever caught on. Not my experience in the few universities i have worked at.


  • 9 Fanis // Oct 19, 2012 at 03:20

    An interesting communication by Simon Gaskell to all Queen Mary staff was forwarded to me recently and I post it here.

    From: Principal <principal@qmul.ac.uk>

    Subject: Professor Evelyn Welch
    Date: 16 October 2012 13:37:13 GMT+01:00
    To: all-staff@qmul.ac.uk
    Reply-To: principal@qmul.ac.uk

    Dear Colleague,  I am writing to let you know that Professor Evelyn Welch will be leaving Queen Mary in December to take up the new post of Vice Principal for Arts and Sciences at King’s College London.  Evelyn has made many contributions to QM over the last decade, most recently as Vice Principal for Research and International Affairs.  I am sure that you will join me
    in thanking Evelyn and wishing her well as she takes on the broad responsibilities of her major new role.  There will be opportunities in the coming weeks to thank Evelyn for her contributions.  In the meantime, she has asked me to pass on the following message:  “I have thoroughly enjoyed the past ten years at Queen Mary and have been proud to serve an institution that has grown to become one of the finest Higher Education institutions in the UK.  While I will miss many aspects of Queen Mary, above all my many friends and colleagues, I am looking forward to the new challenges and opportunities offered by my new role at King’s. I’d like to thank all those with whom I have worked over the past decade for the support and help
    I have received and look forward to future collaborations.”  I will write separately within the next week to indicate the new arrangements to cover Evelyn’s present responsibilities.  Simon J Gaskell Principal

    My comment follows:

    As part of her role, described above, Evelyn Welch was chairman of the Faculty Panel that applied the restructuring criteria in SBCS. I had written to her a lengthy exposition of my work, to which she never replied, beyond reportedly commenting at the panel that reading my published scientific work was not relevant to the restructuring process.

  • 10 Fanis // Oct 19, 2012 at 03:31

    My last correspondence with Simon Gaskell is also provided. I think it makes for a good laugh. I wrote to him on 23 September, when I saw for the first time that he had been advised to help me find redeployment within Queen Mary.

    “I request a statement to clarify why, in deciding that my last day of service with the College would be the 29th June 2012, you did not take into account the advice provided by Ms Elford.”

    His answer was as follows:

    Dear Dr Missirlis

    Re Clarification of letter dated 28 June 2012

    I received a recommendation from the redundancy committee that your employment should be terminated on the grounds of redundancy.

    I agreed with their recommendation and advised you that your employment would be terminated on the grounds of redundancy.

    I considered the advice from the redundancy committee in respect of providing you with support to find suitable redeployment in the College. However, I made the decision to terminate your employment with effect from 29 June 2012 and that you would receive payment in lieu of notice. As your employment ended, the obligation to find suitable alternative employment for you ceased.

    Yours sincerely

    Simon J Gaskell
    Queen Mary, University of London
    Mile End Road, London E1 4NS
    Tel: +44 (0) 20 7882 5061
    Fax: 44 (0) 20 8981 2848
    From the Principal
    Professor Simon J Gaskell
    BSc PhD FRSC
    Email: principal@qmul.ac.uk

  • 11 Fanis // Dec 25, 2012 at 02:31

    Many more colleagues are resigning and moving to other Universities. Two letters in the Times Higher Education one from a Biology student here and one from me here


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