The road to the Responsible Research Metrics Forum

On Wednesday 8 February 2017, Imperial College made headlines by announcing that it has signed the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment. Meaning that Imperial will no longer consider journal-based metrics, such as journal impact factors, in decisions on the hiring and promotion of academic staff. Their decision followed a long campaign by Stephen Curry, a professor of structural biology and long advocate of the responsible use of metrics.

At the end of last year, Loughborough University issued a statement on the responsible use of metrics in research assessment, building on the Leiden Manifesto. This was followed two weeks ago, with a statement on principles of research assessment and management from The University of Bath, building on the concept of responsible use of quantitative indicators. And, earlier in 2016, the Stern review of the Research Excellence Framework recognised clearly that “it is not currently feasible to assess research outputs in the REF using quantitative indicators alone.

What these examples and others show is that the issue of metrics – in particular ‘responsible metrics’ – has risen up the agenda for many universities. As one of those closely involved in the HEFCE review of metrics (The Metric Tide), and secretary to the new UK Forum for Responsible Research Metrics, this of course is great to see.

Nevertheless, of course the issue of metrics has been bubbling away for much longer than that, as the Metric Tide report set out. University administrators, librarians and academics themselves have taken a leading role in promoting the proper use of metrics, with forums like the ARMA metrics special interest group promising to play a key part in challenging attitudes and changing behaviours.

In addition, as we have seen with university responses to the government’s HE green paper and to the Stern review, the wider community is very alive to the risks of an over reliance on metrics. This was reflected in the outcomes of both exercises, with peer review given serious endorsement in both the draft legislation and the Stern report as being the gold standard for the assessment of research.

These developments are exactly the kinds of things that the new UK Forum for Responsible Research Metrics wants to see happening. This forum has been set up with the specific remit to advance the agenda of responsible metrics in UK research, but it’s clear that this is not something it can deliver alone – it is a substantial collective effort.

So what will the Forum do? Well, as the Metric Tide report states, many of the issues relate to metrics infrastructure, particularly around standards, openness and interoperability. The Forum will have a specific role in helping to address longstanding issues, particularly around the adoption of identifiers – an area of focus echoed by the Science Europe position statement on research information systems published at the end of 2016, which is itself a useful touchstone for thinking about these issues.

To support the Forum; Jisc are working hard on developing an action plan to address the specific recommendations of the Metric Tide report, with a particular focus on building effective links with other groups working in this area, e.g. the RCUK/Jisc-led Research Information Management (RIM) Coordination Group. This will be discussed when the Forum meets again in early May.

However, sorting out the ‘plumbing’ that underpins metrics is no good if people continue to misuse them. To support this, the Forum will therefore take a complementary look at the cultures and behaviours within institutions and elsewhere; firstly to develop more granular evidence of how metrics are being used, and secondly to look at making specific interventions to support greater responsibility from academics, administrators, funders, publishers and others involved in research.

With that in mind, Universities UK and the UCL Bibliometrics Group, under the auspices of the Forum, will shortly be jointly issuing a survey of HEIs on the use of problematic metrics in university management and among academic groups, to help identify the scale of any (mis)uses of measures such as the JIF. But, to help us also understand better why initiatives like DORA have not been more widely adopted in the UK.

Of course, metrics have much broader uses than just measuring outputs – they are also used to measure people, groups and institutions. This is a key finding of the Metric Tide report, but one that is often overlooked when focussing very narrowly on output metrics. The forum will also be focussing on this, seeking to bring people together across all domains.

To make a decisive contribution here, the Forum needs to have clout, and it is for this reasons that the five partners (HEFCE, RCUK, Jisc, Wellcome and Universities UK) asked Professor David Price to convene and chair the Forum as a mixed group of metrics experts and people in positions of serious influence in their communities. This was a delicate balance to strike, and one that can only be successful if the Forum engages effectively with the various interested communities.

With that in mind, the Forum is planning to set up a number of ‘town hall’ meetings throughout 2017 to engage with specific communities on particular topics, and would very much welcome hearing from anyone interested in being involved in these or in engaging with the Forum in any other way. We will be announcing further details of these on the Forum’s web pages soon.

If you are interested in joining up with the work of the Forum throughout 2017, please contact me on b.johnson@hefce.ac.uk – I’d be delighted to hear from you.


The post was originally published on the Bibliomagician.