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Universities ‘face risks’ without responsible research assessment

 Image: Chris Parr for Research Professional News

Arma 2024: Research managers hear how to overcome institutional barriers to assessment reform

There is a reputational risk for universities not engaging in responsible research assessment, a conference has heard.

Elizabeth Gadd, head of research culture and assessment at the University of Loughborough, was speaking in a session at the 2024 Association of Research Managers and Administrators annual conference.

She predicted that “a time is coming where there is a reputational risk for those not engaging in this agenda [for responsible research assessment]”.

Gadd added that “the rankings are intellectually incoherent, as pointed out by my institution. We can’t, as intellectuals, continue to support and promote rankings as they are.”

Loughborough is a co-lead of the UK national chapter for the Coalition for Advancing Research Assessment (Coara), an initiative aimed at improving research assessment practices nationwide. Set up in 2022, it encourages institutions to consider the nuances of ranking indicators.

Gadd pointed out that being a signatory to Coara did not mean institutions should stop using ranking indicators altogether; rather that they should acknowledge a university’s output is worth “more that its rank”.

Institutional barriers

Research managers at the session heard what they could do to overcome barriers that prevented their institutions from signing up to, and implementing, responsible research assessment practice initiatives.

Barriers highlighted included resistance from senior leaders, who champion ranking assessments in and for their institutions, and difficulties implementing change in large organisations.

In response, Mareike Wehner, a research publications metrics officer at the University of Liverpool, called on research managers to advise senior leadership to “consider what the risk of not doing it is: the reputational risk”.

An attendee in the audience said: “One of the things that has been helpful at the University of Bristol is just showing how perverse some of the ranking indicators are. We’ve showed how skewed they are and how they don’t align with other indicators that they feel passionate about.

“We’re trying to create a culture where we’re open to trying something new by showing that the way we’ve done things before just isn’t robust,” she added.

Grace Murkett, a research policy officer at the University of Strathclyde, another co-lead of the UK Coara National Chapter, highlighted that the drive for reform is not seeking a complete system change, but instead for institutions to be open to changing current practices.

“We’re not asking for the moon, but a direction of travel towards changing the system,” she concluded.

A version of this article also appeared in Research Fortnight