Don't rely on journal rankings, Willetts warns business schools

By Miriam Frankel

Science and universities minister David Willetts has urged the UK’s business schools to stop assuming that the prestige of publishing in certain academic journals matters in the assessment of quality under the Research Excellence Framework.

Willetts was speaking at the Association of Business Schools' conference Innovation and Growth Unleashing Potential on 21 May. He told the audience that there was a “nightmare" scenario in the UK, where what matters in business schools is how you score in the REF coupled with a belief that you have to appear in prestigious journals to do well. 

Such journals, he added, are "by and large based in America”. Meaning the research will often focus on business areas that are more relevant to the United States than to the UK.

“This is not necessarily what is in the best interest of British business...we have to break this cycle,” he said. “In particular, I am always assured by academics [setting up] the REF that the journal in which you appear is not relevant to the assessment of quality. The trouble is every time I say this I know nobody believes me."

“I don’t know how we’ve got academics caught on this treadmill, where there is a very small number of journals in which they believe they have to [publish],” he added.

Willetts said that the government was keen to find ways to change "damaging incentives for research”.

Although not specifically mentioned by Willetts, the ABS publishes a journal-ranking tool called The ABS Guide, which is a popular tool used by universities in preparing REF submissions. Many studies have suggested a strong correlation between past results from the Research Assessment Exercise and assessment of those same outputs based on the guide’s journal rankings.

Last year, Maria Nedeva, a sociologist of science at the University of Manchester, investigated the use of the ABS list as a management tool. Questioning colleagues in seven UK business schools, she found that the list was used by six of them.

This article was published in Research Professional, the UK’s leading independent source of news, analysis, funding opportunities and jobs for the academic research community.

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