What goes around…

… for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.” (Galatians 6:7)

Queen Mary, fresh from their elevation to the Russell Group, are keen to boost the quality of their research.  Their School of Biological and Chemical Sciences have launched a restructuring programme, which will evaluate scientists based on the number and impact factor of their publications, and the amount of their research income.  Those who are under-performing are at risk of redundancy.

This move has brought essentially universal condemnation.  In particular, see David Colquhoun’s blogpost “Is Queen Mary University of London trying to commit scientific suicide?”.  The reliance on impact factors to evaluate scientists’ work feeds into a thorough discussion about their usefulness or otherwise on Stephen Curry’s blog, specifically the post “Sick of Impact Factors”.

Let’s deal with some points straightaway.  Yes, the impact factor of a journal is an extremely blunt instrument to measure the quality of a piece of research, and as an assessment of a particular researcher, it’s all but useless.  There is no guarantee that employing this as a metric to assess their staff will boost the quality of Queen Mary’s research, and every worry that it will drag down their research quality, by making some talented and creative scientists redundant.

As a postdoc, I know all this.  The reason why I know all this is because any time I get feedback from another failed application for a fellowship or lectureship, it’s always my publication list that lets me down.  Not enough publications.  Not enough high-impact publications.  I don’t think anyone actually reads my work or evaluates what I might bring to the department, they simply run their fingers down my publication list, searching for the “right” journals.  They find none, and my application is rejected.

Now, the same method is being applied to them.  And, of course, their knickers are in a twist because some of them might lose their jobs.  I’m trying hard to be sympathetic, but it’s a bit difficult because this is exactly how postdocs have been judged for years (it might be worth mentioning that I’ve been on either a fixed-term contract or on a contract with an in-built redundancy date every day of my academic working life).  So if it’s not acceptable to evaluate professors in this way, will we soon see a new way of evaluating postdocs?

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4 Responses to What goes around…

  1. I sympathise totally with what you say. In the (now defunct) Pharmacology dept at UCL we asked people to nominate their best papers. The number depended on how long the person had been working, but never more than four. We’d read the papers, and ask questions about them (specially about the methods section), and we wouldn’t place much weight on where they’d been published. This system penalises people who have a large number of thin publications. It also sometimes revealed that the applicants were mere guest authors.

    This is the best system I know, but sadly it is far from universal. It should be.

    • drpostdoc says:

      I’m thrilled to have a distinguished member of the blogging community as my first commenter, so thank you very much for commenting!

      The system you mention seems admirably fair. Four papers is of course a standard REF submission, so no-one could claim that was being ignored. And, as you say, it also weeds out what you have called “guest authors”.

      I anticipate a future blogpost in which I outline a few methods I have observed to boost one’s publication list with minimum effort.

  2. To the left of centre says:

    Reblogged this on To the left of centre and commented:
    I thought I would reblog this because it takes a slightly different view to that taken by others. Admittedly, the view doesn’t seem to be that the restructurings at Queen Mary are a good idea, simply that it is no worse than what happens, typically, to postdocs. I do happen to agree that our assessment of postdocs, and others looking for research appointments, is probably not particularly different to what Queen Mary is now doing to the staff of the School of Biological and Chemical Sciences. The one subtlety, I would argue, is that postdocs who don’t get a new appointment or a Fellowship have not been promised anything and can make informed decisions based on the results of these various applications. Academic staff who are suddenly made redundant later in their career are in a much more difficult position, especially if the reason they are now being made redundant is because they have been essentially forced to do more teaching (or admin) than they had expected and their research had suffered. That’s not to say that the author of this post doesn’t, in some sense, have a valid point.

    • drpostdoc says:

      Thanks for the reblog, and fair analysis.

      You make a fair point: an academic might well expect security of employment, while a postdoc does at least know from the start that their job is a precarious one. The shame is that academics don’t realise that precarious jobs and arbitrary definitions of “excellence” based on impact factors is a shabby way to treat people until it starts happening to them.

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