‘So is this like the RAE that Miles was telling me about the other day?’ asks Tanja, who is fascinated now, despite herself.
‘Sort of,’ says Miles. ‘The RAE is another government inspection, but it concerns research rather than teaching. It’s called the Research Assessment Exercise. It’s bad, but it’s not in the same league of badness as the QAA. Every seven years a department has to submit up to four papers, that is, articles, or books, from each academic.’
‘Who assesses the work?’ asks Tanja.
‘A couple of people from that discipline will read all the stuff every department in that discipline submits, and then they give each piece of work a score,’ says Ren.
‘How can so few people make such big decisions like that? Is that your objection?’ asks Tanja.
‘That’s one of the objections,’ says Ren. ‘There’s no way that a few people can accurately assess the quality of so much work published in so many sub-areas. That’s just a joke. Nobody really thinks they can. So really, in practise, the assessors base their scores on where the books and articles are published. Better publisher, better score. Better journal, better score. They pretend they don’t do that, because officially they don’t, officially they definitely don’t, but everybody knows they do.’
‘Not that that’s a bad thing, it’s better than trying to do it themselves,’ says Douglas. ‘But it’s not like you can really say that because Paper A is in a supposedly better journal, it’s better than Paper B.’
‘Yeah, take World Science,’ shouts Jay, as though he wants the editorial board of World Science to hear his pointed comments all the way from Grayvington. ‘It’s one of the biggest journals in the science world, but it has areas it likes to publish, and areas it doesn’t like to publish. And lots of stuff they publish isn’t that good, but it’s trendy.’
‘And World Science has cliques that run things, and they get each other into print,’ says Lily in a quiet voice, like she’d also prefer Jay to keep it down. ‘Buggins’ turn. Like a lot of journals. Each revolves around its own clique, and the interests of its usual referees, which are often drawn from that clique.’
Tanja is looking disillusioned, but she also looks like she’s appreciating having the scales fall away from her eyes. Universities are fucked-up places just like everywhere else. (At least, they are when the government gets involved, although that is not a thought that occurs to her. The thought, the mistaken thought, that occurs to her at this moment is that it’s no wonder that academic philosophers like Ren are so small-minded, having to deal with all this bureaucracy.)
‘And who’s to say what’s a better journal anyway?’ says Ren.
‘Yes,’ says Lily. ‘Determining that is very difficult if there’s no agreement, which there usually isn’t.’
‘There is this move in some fields, especially in the sciences, to try to make journal rankings more objective,’ says Miles. ‘One way they’re trying is by citation count. The journals that get the most citations, that is, mentions in articles and books, are the best. But that’s like trying to say that the best music is the stuff at the top of the pop charts.’
‘Also, a lot of material gets a lot of mentions only because it’s being held up as an example of what is wrong,’ says Lily.
‘Yeah,’ says Ren, ‘in fact the Arts and Humanities Citation Index did a study of the years, seventy-six to eighty-three, I think it was, and found that the most cited twentieth century author in the major humanities journals, by a long way, was Lenin. Also in the top ten were such idiots as Heidegger, Sartre, Derrida and Foucault. And most of the others weren’t much better, Barthes, Levi-Strauss, etc.
‘Das Kapital is always in the top ten or twenty of those lists of the most cited works every year,’ says Miles.
‘What’s bad about that?’ says Jay.
‘You’re fucking joking, right?’ says Ren. ‘Marx at number twelve, Robert Conquest at, who knows where? Seven thousand? And usually at or near the top is Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions, which is still trendy despite Kuhn’s obvious inability to distinguish between the logic of science and the history of science.’
‘In science the citation counts aren’t much better,’ says Jay. ‘It’s rewarding those who make the most noise, not those who do the best science.’
‘At least the RAE is attempting, however imperfectly, to directly measure what it’s supposed to measure,’ says Ren. ‘Research quality, that is. Unlike the QAA, which uses highly indirect measures of teaching quality.’
‘In my view there’s only one good thing about the RAE, and that is that it hasn’t been overcomplicated like the QAA,’ says Lily. ‘It’s straightforward. Here’s some work, let’s see how good it is. Even though they’re mistaken in thinking that they can so easily assess that work, at least that’s all there is.’
‘For now, ‘says Ren. ‘But that won’t last. It’s government. And there are vested interests. Government doesn’t like things being simple. It thrives on things being unwieldy and over-complicated, all of which enables it to expand. If you think it’s going to stay simple you’re fooling yourself.’
‘I agree,’ says Jay. ‘Because the RAE is causing all sorts of problems for Oxford and Cambridge. They don’t do as well in the RAE as they expected they would, because they’re full of old grandees who don’t publish so much these days. So they’re pressuring the RAE to change the criteria, to include things like “marks of esteem”, like getting keynotes.’
‘What are keynotes?’ says Tanja.
‘Getting a keynote means being invited to present a keynote lecture at a conference, that is, one of the prestigious longer speeches that everyone is expected to turn up to. Oxbridge wants this to count in the RAE. They have so much clout that I expect it’ll be included in future RAEs. Which will defeat the point of the RAE, which is that it’s not supposed to be about reputation, but about the actual research that is done in that RAE period, not basking in the glory of research done in earlier periods.’
‘You just wait, eventually they’ll start including things like being an editor of a journal, and all sorts of other shit,’ says Miles.
‘But does any of this really matter?’ asks Tanja.
‘Yes,’ says Miles, ‘because how much research money the government gives your department depends on your RAE score. And departments with a lower RAE score sometimes get given the axe.’
‘The other problem with the RAE,’ says Lily, ‘is that it encourages publishing for the sake of the RAE. It’s not like there’s any shortage of academic papers in the world. People are publishing material that no-one is going to read, or needs to read, just because the RAE says they have too.
‘Gore Vidal once said that the world doesn’t need any more novelists,’ says Ren. ‘What it needs is more readers. That applies to the academic world in spades. Tens of thousands of papers coming out, that no-one, except the author and a referee or two, ever reads. Journals are overwhelmed. Referees are overwhelmed. Refereeing is getting worse, academics hand over their referring duties to their grad students because they don’t have time to do it. Because of the demand to publish, more and more journals will start up, and put out more and more papers that no-one will read. We have an epidemic of over-publishing, which is made worse by the government.’
‘Why do you all put up with it?’ says Tanja.
‘Good question. We shouldn’t,’ says Ren. ‘But, like I said earlier, academics are cowards. They’re all wedded to their salaries and their pensions. They’ve assumed they have a job for a life and as a result they’ve got themselves nice houses with big mortgages. Funny how the middle-class left always ends up in the nice positions. So most academics would be in financial trouble if they lost their jobs, so they don’t take any risks.’