LERU position paper
Lead author: Prof. Bert Overlaet, Emeritus full professor at KU Leuven and Chair of the LERU Careers of Researchers & HR Policy Group
The assessment of research and researchers is currently a prominent subject in and outside the academic world. Unfortunately, the debate is often reduced to a discussion on the use of (some) bibliometric tools in individual assessments, without providing much of an alternative. With this paper, LERU wants to contribute to the discussion from a positive perspective, showing what a future for the assessment of researchers could possibly look like in the light of multidimensional academic careers.
For LERU universities, the assessment of researchers is at the heart of the scientific endeavor and provides institutions with a responsibility that is the flip side of academic freedom. This responsibility is taken seriously, as LERU universities increasingly pay attention to the environment in which research is executed, and in which young researchers are trained. This development is in line with the cultural transformation that is part of the Open Science movement and with several national initiatives on reward and recognition.
This paper started from an exchange of current practices and experimentation at LERU universities regarding the assessment of researchers in the context of hiring, promotion or evaluation, and develops a common framework that can inspire and support universities in this crucial responsibility. The underlying perspective is to reward and recognize a diversity of profiles and contributions, as they are all important for the overall success of the institution, be it in research, education, or in service to society.
Today, LERU universities already use a broad range of criteria to assess their researchers’ performance. For research, this not only includes their scientific output and contributions to the progress in their field in a variety of forms, but also the recognition from their scientific community, their track record in competitive funding, their collaboration within and across disciplines and sectors, their strategic leadership in research and the advancement and enablement of junior researchers. For education, criteria include their engagement in high quality teaching, the development of learning tools and methods, their reflection on teaching practices and curriculum development, and their educational engagement outside university.
Most LERU universities also recognize the service their researchers deliver to society, often referred to as public engagement, outreach or impact. They also consider the duties and responsibilities their researchers assume in their institution or in larger collaborations, although this dimension is rarely formally elaborated or structured.
This multidimensional perspective focuses on the diversity of contributions that is expected from researchers in an academic environment. It aims to account for a diversity of profiles that today are needed in scientific work. However, it is insufficient to focus only on past performance, so two more perspectives are developed in the paper.
One is a developmental perspective, focusing on transversal dimensions such as leadership, innovation, and collaboration. To develop these dimensions over their careers, researchers need to develop themselves and their interpersonal skills. The importance of aspects such as leadership in an academic career is ever more recognized in the scientific community, but there is still much work to do to make these dimensions a structural and systematic part in the assessments of researchers.
The other one is a contextual perspective, taking into account the particular context of the researcher who is under assessment. The term context can refer both to the professional circumstances in which the researcher works, as to his or her personal situation. Contextualization is controversial in assessment (not only in academia), but we argue that a contextual perspective is the only way to make research more inclusive.
After the elaboration of the three perspectives of assessment, the paper continues with several examples from LERU universities that are presently experimenting with new approaches to the assessment of their researchers.
The paper concludes with some key messages and with reflections on the fact that creating a new practice in assessing researchers is not an easy task. The experiments reported show that change is possible and effective, but that assessment processes remain complex and time consuming. Policy makers and funders should reflect on how they can provide the space for experimentation that universities need to improve their assessment of researchers.