National systems of research assessment and implications for libraries

Research assessment is a very big deal in some countries. Countries whose university systems are largely publicly-funded routinely check up on the research quality of individual universities to ensure that they are squeezing the best possible performance out of their systems. They do this because they see a link between high-quality research and economic development. The economic potential of research is growing in importance as national ‘knowledge economies’ recognise the need for international research excellence, and see universities as a key driver.

We have just published a report which reviews the research assessment regimes of five countries, and the role of libraries in the processes of assessment that exist. This report was produced by Key Perspectives Ltd, a UK consultancy, and it surveys the research assessment situation in the Netherlands, Ireland, the UK, Denmark and Australia. We chose countries that we knew were doing interesting things in assessment – or in preparation for its introduction. The high political stakes involved were evident even as the report was being written. In the UK, the pilot exercise for the system that will replace the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) ditched one of its proposed new thrusts (bibliometrics) and found another (economic impact) for the country’s universities to stress about. In Australia, a recent change of government led to temporary abandonment of a system that tied assessment outcomes to government funding, and arguably lost the country some ground in the international scramble for both reputation and economic advantage.

The Review provides a fascinating account of different cultural understandings of the purposes of assessment, and a glimpse of the trend of concentrating research excellence in a small number of top universities that is now taking shape in many countries, as the competition for research income, top faculty and students becomes one that occurs within a single international marketplace. We found countries that tied research assessment to large amounts of government funding, and others that did not (yet); countries that operated systems based on bibliometrics and others that mistrusted them; countries that devised league tables of journals and awarded points to researchers on those they published in – and others that assembled national panels of experts to determine the rankings.

Libraries are involved in these assessment exercises in a range of ways, from the clerical (data entry) to the highly strategic, and from the specialist (bibliometric expertise) to a role as providers of general infrastructure (institutional repositories). Whatever differences there may be in the assessment systems adopted by different countries, they all share a focus upon the research outputs produced by their researchers and faculty. These outputs are managed by libraries – both indirectly (via publications) and, increasingly directly (via arrangements with the authors themselves at pre-publication stages). Does this suggest that libraries play a central role in research assessment within their institutions? Or that they should? At the very least, shouldn’t libraries seek a shared view on this question?