Democracy and Peer-Assessment

By Harding, Anthony | Antiquity, June 1996 | Go to article overview

Democracy and Peer-Assessment


Harding, Anthony, Antiquity


This will be the fourth research assessment in UK universities, and methodologically the most sophisticated. Earlier exercises were justly criticized: the returns could be manipulated by the unscrupulous; the panels assessing the work were not properly representative; and results seemed to confirm what assessors believed about particular departments in advance of reading their submissions. (That impression was reinforced by the 1992 assessors apparently deciding that it was not necessary actually to read the works cited by those being assessed as representative of their best output.) I have been impressed this time by the efforts made by the funding bodies to ensure fair coverage and representation, and the attention to detail in the instructions for making returns.

Consequences of an assessment exercise

Once an assessment is decided on, with the ground-rules established, then the processes criticized by Fleming (1996) and Sherratt (1996) are bound to follow. There are two main elements involved in getting a good rating: quality and quantity. You can get a top rating while being small if all your staff are excellent. You can also get a top rating if you are large and have enough excellent staff to hide those not so excellent. Funding goes with the number of staff rated 'research-active' (not the number rated 'excellent'). So productive researchers are made offers to go elsewhere (or to stay where they are) to boost the quality factor; departments increase their numbers in the hope that they will gain ground on the quantity factor.

Archaeology has in fact been relatively free from such manoeuvrings by comparison with some disciplines. There have been a few moves, but some were likely anyway; there have been more internal promotions. The fact is that there are active in archaeology in British universities a large number of excellent and productive researchers, whose deserved promotion was hitherto difficult to secure because of ratios of senior to junior staff and other quotas in individual institutions. I see no cause for regret that some of these people have been rewarded by their universities, even where reward has been a ploy to keep them from moving away.

The one general criticism of the assessment process I want to voice is that it has made academic life more competitive, less collegial. It is no longer a simple matter to ask a colleague in another institution to read and criticize one's work in draft. It takes up their time, time they could be spending on their own research; it means they are helping another institution - maybe a rival - with its research output.

A real problem for the panel is that universities now know how to present their departments in the best possible light; they have all been working to ensure that publications are out, students and staff in place, research income high, and the wording on the forms upbeat.

Selection of the assessment panel

Who should select the assessors, and how? …

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