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Experts urge caution around use of ‘excellence’ in research

Term can lead to perverse incentives in how research is judged in Global South

A group of international academics have called for caution in the use of ‘excellence’ to describe or define research in developing countries. 

The call for action from 20 scholars, including several scientometrics experts with strong links to Africa, appears in a book published last month titled Transforming Research Excellence: New Ideas from the Global South. 

Excellence, the academics argue, has become a “powerful rhetorical technique” among funders and institutions. But while the term indicates some form of elite or top research activity, its meaning is usually vague, they say. 

“At worst, it can lead to perverse incentives and introduce significant biases in how research from the Global South is judged,” they say.

Therefore, where it’s not clearly defined, ‘excellence’ should be avoided when discussing resource allocations, they argue. Instead, funders and other resource allocators should pay heed to measures like meaningful research impact or capacity building. 

“We need to recognise, describe and incentivise research that has value across a variety of local, national and global contexts; it needs to be done well, be valid, but need not be ‘excellent’ or ‘superior’,” they argue.