No marks for free-thinking: The mania for assessment is giving scholarship a bad name, says Lincoln Allison

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The Independent Online
IN A LIFETIME devoted to fomenting controversy it has taken me some time to discover the topic that causes maximum apoplexy. Running well ahead of sexism, racism or the teaching of English literature, it is the 'research' activities of university academic staff.

My view is that research is greatly overrated: what most academics do can only misleadingly and mischievously be described as research. We theorise, we argue, we take the broad view, we speculate and we practise scholarship. And sometimes, but only sometimes, we engage in the kind of systematic knowledge gathering which might unambiguously be described as research. The trouble with the word 'research' is that it is ambiguous between this fairly narrow meaning and its use as a word to cover all of academic life.

The reason why this distinction has become important is that our 'research' is now 'rated'. There is one very good reason for this: if you have a hundred universities but you only have the money, for example, to run three 'state-of-the-art' physics laboratories, you have to decide who should run them. But, in spite of the fact that this need to prioritise applies only to some natural scientists, it is being suggested that rating be applied to everybody. This stems from the fashion for appraisal, assessment, ranking and performance-related pay which swept through American business in the Seventies and British administration in the early Eighties.

Experience has now taught us that you cannot really assess most people's performance other than subjectively and that the main effects of attempts to do so are schism and a diversion of energy away from production. Indeed, the mania for appraisal is widely attributed with the evolution of a certain kind of shyster who is good only at being appraised, as many schoolteachers or civil servants can tell you. Nevertheless, such nonsense allows the Government to fool itself into believing it is doing something about the efficiency of public sector finances.

The case against research as it is coming to be defined can be boiled down to four major arguments.

Research is the bureaucratisation of intellectual activity. If you want to study a subject you should read widely, look seriously at different approaches, have some direct experience in the area, draft ideas and seek new information. On the other hand, if someone agrees to pay you pounds 34,540 to study 'The Televised Behaviour of Public Figures', to take a real example, you have to devote a great deal of extra effort to securing the money, justifying it, accounting for it and making sure you spend every penny.

The serious consequence is a loss of intellectual independence. If you (ie, a university or government bureaucrat) declare intellectual activity to be 'research' - which must be funded and assessed - you control it. The unfunded, unassessed activity that was genuinely autonomous is frowned upon and lacks kudos.

Research is not a distinct activity. In the humanities, particularly, it is very difficult to know what research means. 'Interviewing' people is research, but travelling widely and having a wide variety of contacts and conversations isn't? Reading unpublished documents is, but reading books isn't?

I have often claimed that I don't do research, but the claim is fairly fraudulent. I have read lots of documents, interviewed many people and been a part of many institutions involved with 'the environment'. (One can claim this last category as 'participant observation', of course.) What I have not done is fill in any forms asking the Economic and Social Research Council to provide money to do all these things; any money that I needed came either from me, the institutions involved or from magazines prepared to pay expenses in return for articles. And that is the key: research can't really be defined, so the danger is that it will be defined in terms of money.

Insofar as it is clear what research is, it is not a superior activity. What are the characteristics of a 'research' project in social studies? It is likely to be funded, large, empirical and defined by some pre-established model or methodology. So the dangers are that it will be narrow, ill-educated and corrupt. Nobody will pay you to think freely or read widely; typically, they pay you to find out something that is useful to them or which justifies their position or policy. They will pay you, for example, to find out how opportunities for women can be expanded in the banking sector, but not to speculate on the ethical consequences of abandoning long-established gender institutions. At the least you will be corrupted by a kind of modish political correctness.

Increasing the quantity of output is a bad thing. There is currently enormous pressure to increase the amount of research: those who don't 'produce' are being leant on; those who do are being encouraged to do more, more often. This leads to the invention of endless journals that nobody reads; the pain of people pretending to have something interesting to say when it's embarrassingly obvious that they haven't, and the absurd accumulation of an expensive EU research mountain.

Something less than 1 per cent of what academics produce actually matters, but it matters a lot: the important thing is to create an environment in which the highest level of work really can take place.

The pressure to produce faster, though, is a much greater evil, tending to make academic work increasingly slick and superficial. In 1992 the United States Institute of Scientific Information claimed that the increase in output in the UK had markedly lowered the amount of top-class work produced.

And there is, of course, a huge opportunity cost to this treadmill of production: every academic who is completing some trivial research project or writing up an article that will fall still-born from the presses could have been reading more widely or helping his or her more gifted colleagues or enjoying life more. Not to mention putting more effort into teaching.

But the most important argument of all is that at the core of any serious intellectual life are a dozen or so disciplines which overlap in their philosophical problems and implications: they include physics, philosophy, biology, theology, history, politics and so on. Nobody can produce truly serious work unless they are reasonably read in these fields and aware of the web of ideas that link and define them. In that sense, 'research', clearly defined, is simply peripheral to what universities ought to be about.

The writer is senior lecturer in the department of politics and international studies at the University of Warwick.

(Photograph omitted)

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