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].
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
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
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.
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.
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
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