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Beating the System

Prof. Nick Petford

Will Earth System Science be a saviour for some UK university geoscience departments in the new world of research assessment? Nick Petford has been looking into the Government’s newest crystal ball…

Most readers will know by now that the Government is seeking to change the way research funding is allocated to UK Universities following the next (2008) Research Assessment Exercise. Instead of using the current system of peer review, research outputs in the STEM subjects (science, technology engineering and mathematics) will be analysed and ranked using a basket of metrics.

The closing date for HEFCE consultation on this matter is 14 February 2008 (see A key indicator of research prowess will be the number of times an individual article is cited by other researchers. The notion of citation counts as a measure of research impact has some degree of international currency, but has also been criticised as a blunt instrument at best.

However, all this looks set to change as new, more sophisticated methodologies are used to unpack the statistical detail behind bibliometric analysis. Key to this new world of bibliometrics is the concept of citation profiling, underpinned by a renormalising technique called ReBased Impact (RBI), that scores each journal article by discipline and year of publication against a world benchmark. The most highly cited (hence influential) journal papers have an RBI >8. RBI can be calculated to provide a benchmarked profile of research activity at national, university, research group or individual level. It is a simple yet extremely powerful tool for analysing research output, and is coming to a Vice Chancellor near you soon.

More detail behind this new citation analysis, which was devised by researchers at Evidence Ltd, a spin-out company from the University of Leeds advising the Government on metrics post-RAE2008 can be found here.

The good news is that with a mean score of 1.3, the UK Geoscience RBI exceeds the world average over the period 1995-2004. However, the analysis also shows that some two thirds of all UK Geoscience papers over the same period were either never cited or fell below the world average. Moreover, given the current broad classification of “Geosciences” as defined by Thomson ISI, the analysis hints that the largest number of highest scoring outputs (RBI > 8) may be in the area of meteorology/atmospheric sciences - subjects not generally thought of as residing in the Geoscience stable. Although provisional, an early implication is that those university departments, either through planning or sheer good fortune, who chose to embrace a highly interdisciplinary (Earth Systems Science-plus) view of Geoscience, may stand to benefit most from bibliometric-informed research funding that will follow the 2008 RAE.