Key Performance Indicators and the Heightening Contradictions of Academia

Chris Beneke

Of what value is your scholarship? Historians in Britain are receiving unsettling precise answers to that question. In case you hadn’t heard the news, British academics are now locked into a quality control regime that forces them to measure up against “Key Performance Indicators” over a 6 to 7 year span. The measures are largely determined by government officials though the actual measuring is done by historians.

Better minds have already suggested that the quantification of humanities scholarship through such mechanisms will dampen creativity, discourage ambitious long-term projects, and lower scholarly quality, while sucking much of the joy out of professional historical work. Randall blogged about funding-driven assessment tools a couple of weeks ago, Anthony Grafton’s AHA President’s column mentioned it in January, and Simon Head recently wrote a more extended analysis for the New York Review of Books. (I did some hand wringing myself in November.) Nonetheless, one paragraph in Simon Head’s account of the system struck me as especially noteworthy:

In the humanities the RAE (Research Assessment Exercise) bias also works in favor of the 180–200-page monograph, hyperspecialized, cautious and incremental in its findings, with few prospects for sale as a bound book but again with a good chance of being completed and peer-reviewed in time for the RAE deadline. A bookseller at Blackwell’s, the leading Oxford bookstore, told me that he dreaded the influx of such books as the RAE deadline approached.

In other words, the new British accountability systems seems perfectly designed to heighten the contradictions in the academic world, ensuring that the “research output” that scholars are dourly incentivized to produce is less accessible to the larger public and therefore less likely to contribute to the informed consideration of things that the public worries about—like, for instance, big social, political, and ethical problems. The argument can surely be made that rigorous research measures drive scholars toward more focused and more readily publishable research, which will ultimately makes a greater indirect contribution on the world. But I doubt that it would be convincing, especially when it comes to historical research.

Indeed, the RAE seems well designed to thwart scholars who believe that they should write engaging volumes that people who don’t care a whit about the distinction between social history and cultural history (the common term for them is “general readers”) might actually desire to read. Despite the precarious state of academic publishing, historians have enjoyed the indulgence of academic presses in recent years because of their faith that we will eventually write such books—if not the first time around, then the second, or third. It’s hard to imagine that system holding up if we’re flooding bookstore shelves with carefully calibrated units of research output, rather than, you know, books.