Re: RAE Questions

From: Stevan Harnad <>
Date: Tue, 4 Apr 2006 20:34:21 +0100

On Tue, 4 Apr 2006, Loet Leydesdorff wrote:

> Now that we have amply discussed the political side of the RAE, let us turn
> to your research program of replacing the RAE with a metrics.

Loet, we can discuss my research progam if you like, but we were
not discussing that. We were discussing the UK government's proposed
policy of replacing the RAE with metrics. That has nothing to do with my
research program. They decided to switch from the present hybrid system
(of re-reviewing published articles plus some metrics) to metrics alone
because metrics alone are already so highly correlated with the current
RAE outcomes (in many, though not necessarily all fields). No critique of
metrics over-rides that decision where the two are already so highly
correlated. It would be pure superstition to continue going through the
ergonomically and eocnomically wasteful motions of the re-review when
the outcome is already there in the metrics.

> Two problems have been mentioned which cannot easily be solved:
> 1. the skewness of the distributions

I think there are ways to adjust for this.

> 2. the heterogeneity of department as units of analysis

That is a separate matter. The proposal to swap metrics alone for a
redundant, expensive, time-consuming hybrid process that yields the same
outcome was based on the units of analysis as they now are. The units
too could be revised, and perhaps should be, but that is an independent

> The first problem can be solved by using non-parametric regression analysis
> (probit or logit) instead of multi-variate regression analysis of the LISREL
> type. However, will this provide you with a ranking? I cannot oversee it
> because I never did it myself.

The present RAE outcome (rankings) is highly correlated with metrics
already. If we correct the metrics for skewness, this may continue to
give the same highly correlated outcome, or another one. RAE can then
decide which one it wants to trust more, and why, but either way, it has
no bearing on the validity of the decision to scrap re-reviews for
metrics when they give almost the same outcome anyway.

> Stephen Bensman also mentioned the
> instability of these skewed curves over time. I would anyhow be worried
> about the comparisons over time because of auto-correlation
> (auto-covariance) effects.

Whatever their skewness, temporal variability and auto-correlation, the
ranking based on metrics are very similar to the rankings based on
re-review. The starting point is to have a metric that does *at least as
well* as the re-review did, and then to start work on optimizing it. Let
us not forget the real alternatives at issue. As I said, it would be
superstitious and absurd to go back from cheap metrics to profligate
re-reviews because of putative blemishes in the metrics *when both yield
the same outcome*.

> I have run into these problems before, and therefore I am a big fan of
> entropy statistics. But policy makers tend not to understand the results if
> one can teach them something about "reduction of the uncertainty". They will
> wish firm numbers to legitimate decisions.

If policy makers have been content to rank the departments and shell out
the money in proportion with the ranks for two decades now, and those
ranks are derivable from cheap metrics instead of costly re-reviews,
they will understand enough to know they should go with metrics. Then
you can give them a course on how to improve on their metrics with
"entropy statistics".

> The second problem is generated because you will have institutional units of
> analysis which may be composed of different disciplinary affiliations and to
> a variable extent.

That is already true, and it is true regardless of whether the RAE does
or does not do the re-review over and above the metrics which are already
highly correlated with the outcome. If rejuggling units improves the
equity and predictivity of the rankings, by all means rejuggle them. But
in and of itself that has nothing to do with the obvious good sense of
scrapping profligate re-review in favour of parsimonious metrics when
they yield the same outcome -- even with the present unit structure.

> For example, I am myself misplaced in a unit of
> communication studies. In other cases, universities will have set up
> "interdisciplinary units" on purpose while individual scholars continue to
> affiliate themselves with their original disciplines. We know that
> publication and citation practices vary among disciplines. Thus, one should
> not compare apples with oranges.

It sounds worth remedying, but the question is orthogonal to the
question of whether to retain wasteful re-review or to rely on metrics
that give the same outcome at a fraction of the cost in lost time and
money (that could have been devoted to funding research instead of just
rating it).

> I would be inclined to disadvise to embark on this research project before
> one has an idea of how to handle these two problems. Fortunately, I was not
> the reviewer :-).

I am not sure which research project you are talking about. (I was just
funded for a metrics project in Canada, but it has nothing to do with
the RAE. The RAE, in contrast, has elected to scrap re-review in favour
of the metrics that already yield the same outcome, but that has nothing
to do with my research project.)

Stevan Harnad
American Scientist Open Access Forum

Chaire de recherche du Canada Professor of Cognitive Science
Ctr. de neuroscience de la cognition Dpt. Electronics & Computer Science
Université du Québec à Montréal University of Southampton
Montréal, Québec Highfield, Southampton
Canada H3C 3P8 SO17 1BJ United Kingdom
Received on Wed Apr 05 2006 - 03:46:41 BST

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