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Evaluation and communication are two sides of the same coin


Reforming research assessment will help academics reclaim scholarly communication, say Vinciane Gaillard and Stephane Berghmans

There is a disconnect between core academic values such as research ethics and integrity, diversity, equity and inclusion, collaboration, openness and knowledge-sharing, and the way that research and researchers are assessed against a narrow set of publication-based metrics. 

Research assessment reforms promise to make the intrinsic quality of research outputs—beyond journal publications—more important than their volume or where they are published. Reforming assessment also offers the academic community a route to regain control over scholarly communication. Universities, research performing organisations, researchers, funders and national libraries all have a crucial role to play in achieving this.

Until quite recently, this route forward was much less clear. And in the university sector, we must first and foremost get our own house in order. For example, European University Association (EUA) research from 2019 shows that universities make extensive use of the journal impact factor to evaluate not only individual research outputs but, worse still, researchers themselves. 

This measure was developed to help university libraries decide which journals to purchase. Over time, it and similar metrics have become proxies for quality and impact, making journal publications the main vehicle for research assessment and giving scientific publishers a disproportionately large role in the research ecosystem.

This unhealthy situation has prompted many calls for the academic community to reclaim ownership of research assessment and align it with core academic values. Many also see an inherent link to academic freedom, encompassing freedom of research, institutional autonomy and democracy. 

To enact this sea change, we have a tremendous asset, the Coalition for Advancing Research Assessment (Coara). Launched in 2022 by the research community, for the research community, members of this coalition have pledged to work together to enable systemic reform on the basis of common principles.

A common vision 

Coara signatories believe that the assessment of research, researchers and organisations must better recognise the diverse outputs, practices and activities that make up and maximise the quality and impact of research. This movement will empower the entire academic community to move from ‘publish or perish’ to new assessment practices. 

These will be defined by the community itself, supported by Coara as a learning platform. The coalition presents a unique opportunity to realign research assessment with core academic values. Furthermore, reforming assessment will also lead to healthier work environments and more open science. 

The agreement also sets a shared direction for changing assessment practices, basing assessment primarily on qualitative judgement, for which peer-review, supported by responsible use of quantitative indicators, is central. The development of new quantitative indicators can also help to ensure a more transparent set of metrics to support qualitative evaluation. 

Commercial companies are already active in this space and their expertise has the potential to serve the academic community well. But caution is needed: reform cannot support further revenue growth for the private sector through ownership of an even bigger share of the research process. Ownership must remain with the academic community.

Launched in 2022, the EUA’s Open Science Agenda 2025 describes how institutions and researchers have relinquished their rights in favour of commercial publishers. It calls for academic ownership of scholarly communication and publishing, in a system that is transparent, diverse, affordable, sustainable, and steered by the research community and its institutions. 

The agenda also looks to a future where scholarly documentation becomes more interoperable, with preprints, blog posts and other means of disseminating scholarly outputs complementing or even replacing traditional journals and books. 

Open access to scholarly outputs can only become an intrinsic part of the research process once open science practices receive appropriate recognition and incentives. Conversely, a more responsible, transparent and sustainable assessment system can help advance open science. Furthermore, efforts to reform research assessment may well help to strengthen the hand of university negotiators in ‘big deals’ talks with publishers.

If less becomes more thanks to rebalanced research assessment, the current scholarly publishing model, based on reputation and numbers, is likely to be transformed and scholarly communication reclaimed by the academic community. 

Vinciane Gaillard and Stephane Berghmans are, respectively, deputy director and director of research and innovation at the European University Association 

This article also appeared in Research Europe