“… 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?