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Research Culture: Creating SPACE to evolve academic assessment

  1. Ruth Schmidt
  2. Stephen Curry
  3. Anna Hatch  Is a corresponding author
  1. Institute of Design, Illinois Institute of Technology, United States
  2. Imperial College, United Kingdom
  3. DORA, United States
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Cite this article as: eLife 2021;10:e70929 doi: 10.7554/eLife.70929

Abstract

Universities and research institutions have to assess individuals when making decisions about hiring, promotion and tenure, but there are concerns that such assessments are overly reliant on metrics and proxy measures of research quality that overlook important factors such as academic rigor, data sharing and mentoring. These concerns have led to calls for universities and institutions to reform the methods they use to assess research and researchers. Here we present a new tool called SPACE that has been designed to help universities and institutions implement such reforms. The tool focuses on five core capabilities and can be used by universities and institutions at all stages of reform process.

Introduction

Ghent University in Belgium made headlines in 2019 when it announced a new policy for evaluating faculty that marked a shift away from the 'rat race' of metrics and rankings towards more holistic processes focused on valuing and nurturing talent (Redden, 2019; Saenen et al., 2021). Faculty members now receive coaching from a personalized committee that evaluates them at the end of a five-year cycle. As part of the process, faculty members write narrative self-reflections to capture their significant achievements and future ambitions for research, teaching, institutional and societal engagement, and leadership.

The aim of Ghent’s policy is to disrupt methods of academic assessment that are increasingly seen as an impediment to the vitality, productivity, and societal relevance of research and scholarship (Aubert Bonn and Pinxten, 2021). This problem has not arisen by design. Rather, it is due to a growing reliance on proxy measures of research quality in the management of recruitment, promotion, tenure and funding decisions: these proxy measures are widely used because they are convenient, not because they are meaningful. The pursuit of a higher ranking in league tables for universities has also contributed to the problem.

However, it is now widely recognized that the metric oversimplification of scholarly achievement distracts academics and institutions from broader and deeper considerations of the most important qualities of research work and culture, such as academic rigor, the rapid dissemination of results, data sharing, and mentoring the next generation of investigators (Müller and de Rijcke, 2017; Hair, 2018; Hatch and Curry, 2020a). Worse still, these approaches typically reward those with access to resources or insight into how to 'play the game', and it can lead institutions to prioritize rankings over their stated goals for diversity, equity, and inclusion (Schmidt, 2020).

Change is coming, but progress remains slow. A particular difficulty is that, despite bold initiatives in places like Ghent, point solutions and individual efforts cannot fix a flawed system. Unless a critical mass of institutions is willing to create and maintain the internal procedural and cultural conditions needed to support sustained change, efforts to define, launch, and evaluate new assessment practices are unlikely to succeed. Solving this kind of complex challenge requires a collaborative systems approach that addresses the underlying culture, infrastructure, and conditions within which assessment activities are conducted at academic institutions.

This insight led us to develop a tool called SPACE that institutions can use to gauge and develop their ability to support new approaches to assessment that are in line with their mission and values (Hatch and Schmidt, 2021). SPACE can be adapted to different institutional contexts, geographies, and stages of readiness for reform, thus enabling universities to take stock of the internal constraints and capabilities that are likely to impact their capacity to reform how they assess research and researchers. SPACE builds on design principles released by DORA (an organization set up to promote best practices in the assessment of scholarly research) in 2020 (Hatch and Schmidt, 2020b), and a five-step approach to responsible evaluation called SCOPE that was developed by the International Network of Research Management Societies (INORMS; Himanen and Gadd, 2019). SPACE was developed via an iterative participatory design process that involved more than 70 individuals in 26 countries and six continents.

SPACE is a rubric that is composed of two axes (Figure 1). One axis depicts five core institutional capabilities that we see as critical to support more sustainable assessment practices and principles: Standards for scholarship; Process mechanics and policies; Accountability; Culture within institutions; and Evaluative and iterative feedback. The other axis indicates how ready the institution is for reform: foundation refers to institutions at the start of the process; expansion refers to institutions where the foundations are in place and the next step is to roll out reforms across institution; the third stage, scaling, refers to iteratively improving and scaling what is known to work at an institution. We envision two uses for this tool. First, it can establish a baseline assessment of the current institutional conditions, resources, and capacity to support the development and implementation of new academic assessment practices when making hiring, promotion, and tenure decisions. Secondly, the rubric can be used to retroactively analyze how the outcomes of specific interventions designed to improve academic assessment have been helped or hindered by strengths or weaknesses within the institution.

SPACE as a tool for helping universities to reform the assessment of research.

SPACE is a rubric to help universities and other institutions reform how they assess research and researchers. One axis depicts five institutional capabilities that we see as critical to reforming the assessment of research: Standards for scholarship; Process mechanics and policies; Accountability; Culture within institutions; and Evaluative and iterative feedback. The other axis indicates three states of readiness for reform (foundation; basic; scaling). This figure shows an abbreviated version of the rubric; the full rubric can be seen in Supplementary file 1. Figure 1 is reproduced from the top panel on page 2 of Hatch and Schmidt, 2021.

In both cases, the rubric is expressly not intended as a prescriptive mechanism, or to pass judgment on an institution’s current state of academic assessment. Rather, it is designed to help institutional leaders reflect on the extent to which their organization can support sustained and values-driven assessment practices, and where they might focus efforts to further evolve them.

To help us optimize the rubric, we piloted it with seven individuals from institutions at varying stages of reform: these individuals were selected to represent different perspectives, backgrounds and academic roles, and they included a college dean, policy advisor, research administrator, faculty member, and graduate student. This helped us identify a variety of ways and contexts in which the rubric can be used to support the development of new policies and practices. While the individuals who piloted the rubric shared valuable information about its use, they did not have the time or resources for a full cycle of implementation. The specific examples discussed in the rest of article therefore refer to the sort of outcomes we hope that the use of the SPACE rubric will lead to, not to changes made as a result of the pilot exercise.

Early-stage reform

In piloting the rubric with individuals at institutions at the foundation stage, one positive outcome was to explicitly and systematically surface insights that had previously been suspected, but not openly shared. While this exercise may reveal or confirm unpleasant truths about the lack of readiness to make substantive change, it can also clarify potential next steps. For example, these may include aligning on values and standards of quality that should inform new assessment practices, or actively recognizing who has historically been included or excluded due to long-standing institutional norms. Although the temptation to focus on specific initiatives or try something new may be strong, simply acknowledging the need for change and using the rubric as a means to capture an honest snapshot of how things stand is a valuable first step.

We also learned that these institutions may struggle to develop the foundational capabilities needed to reform assessment practices if such reform is perceived as a mission driven by a small number of advocates who lack the seniority or resources to navigate resistance from those who are comfortable with the status quo. To enact real change, clear support from the institutional leadership is needed. But it is also important that new academic assessment processes have consistent formats and structures, to reduce any reliance on back-room channels or personal preferences in gauging ‘fit’. A notable example of this was the radical move announced by the Department of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry at Yale University School of Medicine in 2020: to address potential bias, candidates for tenure track Assistant Professor positions in were required to submit 'blinded' applications, which were anonymized and stripped of the names of their previous institutions, funders and the journals where they had published.

Finally, we heard consistently that it was a serious challenge to even assess the various trade-offs that would be involved in making reforms. However, the rubric can help institutions to clearly articulate and dissect perceived tensions between different institutional values or motivators, such as rankings and equity. Moreover, such discussions can help institutions better assess the trade-offs involved and identify where short-term gains may inadvertently result in missed opportunities or wasted potential in the long run. For example, the narrative CV format has shown promise as a means to recognize academic achievement and potential within under-represented groups, thereby facilitating greater equity and workforce diversity (Lacchia, 2021). While innovations such as narrative CVs may be embraced at a conceptual level, they can encounter resistance if they are seen as more onerous and time-consuming than existing approaches. However, by articulating clear short- and long-term goals, institutions at the early stages of reform can reinforce the value of such innovations by making clear how they are part of a broader programme.

Mid- and late-stage reform

Institutions that have already started to reform their assessment practices can use the rubric to identify potential strengths and limitations as they seek to increase the reach and scale of these reforms. In some cases that arose during piloting, we heard that taking a critical eye to the more longitudinal effects of business-as-usual practice exposed unseen brittleness and unintended consequences. Developing new approaches to assessment reform may therefore require identifying and 'undoing' commonly accepted practices that are holding legacy systems in place. An approach to this was exemplified by the Open University in the UK, where a new promotion route that recognized and rewarded academics for public engagement was developed through iterative university-wide consultations (Holliman et al., 2015).

The disruption or deconstruction of current systems can also provide opportunities to reconsider whose voices are heard and valued. An example of this is the inclusion of graduate students in providing feedback during faculty searches, and even participating on search committees, as practiced by the Department of Sociology at Rutgers University. Such interventions can provide hiring committees with new kinds of insights, and they can also give early-career academics insights into aspects of academic career advancement that are normally opaque.

Given the tendency of the academic community to value research over service (Schimanski and Alperin, 2018), building and maintaining the capacity to instill and navigate changes to assessment practices can be a significant issue (Saenen et al., 2021). We heard that the work to set up and maintain new practices and principles requires dedication, time and resources. Several assessment leaders also emphasized that building capacity through upfront investment – even for relatively straightforward tasks such as aligning on values and goals – is necessary to ensure that practices are designed appropriately in the first place. This happened at the Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) when the faculty council decided to create a new opportunity for tenure and promotion that rewards contributions to diversity, equity, and inclusion. Part of the process included the creation of a subcommittee to define clear standards of quality for work on diversity, equity, and inclusion that individual schools within IUPUI can adopt or modify to accommodate disciplinary differences (Flaherty, 2021).

While the ability to customize one-off solutions may be appealing, further expanding and scaling assessment efforts may require institutions at later stages of reform to develop a new capacity to balance clear standards with flexibility if they are to attract and retain a broader range of academics. For example, setting explicit expectations that potential faculty applicants should submit a minimum number of first-author papers can inadvertently dissuade otherwise qualified candidates who do not feel they fit the prescribed mold. Clear criteria are important, but may create impediments if they are not adaptable. The solution may come in landing on principles that allow individual departments or disciplines to customize their own needs while still maintaining institutional consistency. An example of this is the University of Bath, which used a 'task-and-finish' working group to develop principles of research assessment and management in 2017. These principles – that practices be contextualized, evidence-based, tailored, transparent, and centered on expert judgment – simultaneously offer mechanisms for flexibility, customization, and accountability across different disciplines.

In a similar vein, the Latin American Forum for Research Assessment (FOLEC) has articulated a set of principles to address the growing influence of Western publishing models and journal-based indicators in the humanities and social sciences. Developed following extensive community engagement led by the Latin American Council of Social Sciences (CLACSO), these principles help funders and universities in the region to balance the evergreen tension between consistency and flexibility by reconsidering and clearly defining what is meant by research 'impact'.

Big picture

For any institution, irrespective of its readiness, the rubric will only be effective if both the positive and negative aspects of institutional conditions and infrastructure are captured. Like any assessment device, a less than honest framing of the situation will result in less useful results. Nor is the rubric a one-and-done exercise. Just as few assessment solutions or interventions work perfectly out of the gate, institutions at any stage of reform will also benefit from mechanisms for data capture, review, and improvement that are responsive to institutional shifts or the emergence of new leaders and challenges. Building in opportunities for reflexivity and reinforcement over time can help ensure that research assessment processes and cultures can adapt as necessary but also remain resilient.

How the rubric is used will depend on geographic as much as institutional context. In countries with a national classification system to assess researchers – as in Argentina and Mexico – the rubric may prove most useful for institutions in thinking about particular capabilities, such as process mechanics, accountability, and the culture within institutions. Alternatively, it could also be used at a higher level to help redefine standards for national classification systems.

In our pilot exercise, individuals from institutions at various stages of reform felt that the rubric could be used by groups of faculty and/or groups of individuals from different departments as a means to providing bottom-up input to reform programmes being run in a top-down manner. The fact that the output of the rubric may reflect different and even contradictory perspectives depending on who is using it should be seen as a strength rather than a weakness, enabling institutions to bring the multifaceted and systemic nature of assessment activities more fully to light.

More than 20,000 individuals and organizations in 148 countries have signed the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA) to improve the ways research and researchers are assessed by abandoning the journal-based metrics (such as journal impact factor) for a more holistic view of academic achievement. But deciding what should be used in place of journal-based metrics, or to augment quantifiable metrics, is a more complex question that has to be solved within and across individual institutions. For example, as part of its work to facilitate collective action for responsible research assessment the Dutch Recognition and Rewards Program has brought public knowledge institutions and research funders together to align on goals.

The identification of these shared goals – such as diversifying career paths, focusing on research quality and academic leadership, and stimulating open science – has helped Dutch universities to develop broader visions for research assessment that work within their institutional contexts and capabilities. Despite this, the initiative has been met with resistance by some Dutch scholars, who are concerned the shift away from metrics like impact factors will lead to more randomness in decision-making (Singh Chawla, 2021). Hesitancies like these illustrate how current assessment practices need to be addressed in a constructive, evidence-based manner. By providing a framework to systematically assess and analyze how institutions are supporting the reform of research assessment practices, the SPACE rubric promises to do just that.

While the SPACE rubric was designed with academic institutions in mind, we also heard that it could be used by other organizations seeking to improve the ways decisions are made that impact research careers. For example, research funders can use the rubric to improve grant funding decisions and processes, and scholarly societies may find the rubric useful in deciding who wins awards or prizes.

We hope the SPACE rubric will encourage a wide variety of institutions to align on their values and support the development of interventions that make sense for them. We hope also that with attention, time, and input from all stakeholders, the SPACE rubric will support meaningful and persistent improvements in research assessment practices.

Note

DORA receives financial support from eLife, and an eLife employee (Stuart King) is a member of the DORA steering committee.

Data availability

The rubric is the result of a participatory design process, rather than resulting from a qualitative research study. There are no associated datasets with the work.

References

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Decision letter

  1. Peter Rodgers
    Senior and Reviewing Editor; eLife, United Kingdom
  2. Fernanda Beigel
    Reviewer; CONICET-UNCuyo

In the interests of transparency, eLife publishes the most substantive revision requests and the accompanying author responses.

Thank you for submitting your article "Creating SPACE to evolve academic assessment" to eLife for consideration as a Feature Article. Your article has been reviewed by two peer reviewers, and their comments are below. The following individual involved in review of your submission has agreed to reveal their identity: Fernanda Beigel (Reviewer #2).

I would like to invite you to submit a revised manuscript that address the points raised by the reviewers (please see points a-e), and also a number of editorial points (points f-i).Reviewer #1:

The paper outlines a comprehensive tool (rubric) to support research performing organisations to enable and embed culture change related to academic assessment, hiring, promotion and tenure. The purpose of the tool is to shine a light on organisational conditions which can support, or hinder, initiatives to achieve culture change. The tool can be used by organisations who are in any stage of academic assessment reform, and the paper includes some guidance to support users.

The paper sets the scene very effectively, and clearly raises the issues around research assessment criteria and processes used for academic assessment. It provides a good rationale why a research organisation should take a systemic approach, noting that the conditions across an organisation are key to achieving scalable culture change.

The SPACE rubric has been developed through extensive consultation, with input from many organisations across various stages of academic assessment reform. The method used to develop the rubric is robust and reflects the needs of research organisations.

The tool has an important role to play to support research organisations to understand how the environment can hinder and support change. The rubric is presented for senior leaders to reflect on how their organisations can support values-driven assessment practices and how to evolve these. However, throughout the pilot process organisations saw potential for this to be used by faculties or groups rather than as a top-down enquiry. Further, the tool could be used by other stakeholders who either deliver assessments of academics, or who have an influence on research organisation practices. More could be said about both of these potential uses (please see points a and b below).

This tool has the potential to surface the barriers which are faced by institutions across their systems. This information will be of great benefit to organisations in their decision making, prioritisation, and goal setting.Reviewer #2:

This paper is a proposal made by DORA aiming to help institutions develop their ability to support new assessment policies and practices in line with their missions and values. It is a tool, called SPACE to evolve academic assessment, that builds on the principles released by DORA in 2020, which provide a starting point to help institutions experiment with and develop better practices.

This is a well informed piece that starts by acknowledging that the change proposed by DORA Declaration, shared by a many professors and institutions around the world, is evolving, but progress remains slow. Unless a critical mass of institutions are willing to create and maintain the internal procedural and cultural conditions needed to support sustained change are unlikely to succeed. It advocates for boosting efforts to improve the ways research and researchers are assessed and recommends abandoning the journal-based metrics for a more holistic view of academic achievement.

According with the authors, SPACE is a structure that aims explicitly to support the development of responsible research assessment practices in different countries/institutions. Even though this tool is the result of a survey made with 75 individuals in 26 countries, I believe it would be interesting if the authors stress more on the contextualization process that is needed in order for this tool to be used across a wide range of institutional contexts and geographies (please see points d and e below).

Points to be addressed

a) Please say more about how the rubric could be used in both a top-down and bottom-up manner at the same university or institution.

b) Please consider saying something about how the tool could be used by other stakeholders who either deliver assessments of academics, or who have an influence on research organisation practices.

c) It is not clear how the examples given in the sections "Early-stage reform" and "Mid- and late-stage reform" (eg, the examples from Yale, Open University, Rutgers, IUPUI, Bath, FOLEC/CLACSO) relate to the SPACE rubric. Please be clear about which of these examples are taken from the pilot, and which are examples of the sort of changes that you hope that use of the SPACE rubric will lead to.

d) Some countries [such as Argentina and Mexico] have a national classification system for researchers, whereas others only assess researchers at an institutional level: please comment on what this could imply for the rubric?

e) It would also be of interest if the authors can expand a bit on the experiences mentioned in piloting the rubric. How many individuals were involved in the piloting? Was there any institution as a whole involved?

f) Please explain/clarify how the language of early-stage/mid-stage/late-stage used in the text relates to the language of foundation/expansion/scaling in the rubric.

g) Lines 199-112: Please be more explicit about how SPACE could be deployed to resolve tensions (like the tensions between rankings and equity).

h) Lines 181-187: Please consider mentioning that there has been some pushback against the Recognition and Rewards Program in the Netherlands.

i) Please think about the widespread use of the word "researcher" in the article given that the article is arguing that individuals should be assessed on activities other than research.

https://doi.org/10.7554/eLife.70929.sa1

Author response

Points to be addressed

a) Please say more about how the rubric could be used in both a top-down and bottom-up manner at the same university or institution.

We added more information to clarify how the SPACE rubric can support top-down and bottom-up change at the same institution.

b) Please consider saying something about how the tool could be used by other stakeholders who either deliver assessments of academics, or who have an influence on research organisation practices.

We added a sentence offering ideas we heard of how the SPACE rubric might be of use to research funders and scholarly societies.

c) It is not clear how the examples given in the sections "Early-stage reform" and "Mid- and late-stage reform" (eg, the examples from Yale, Open University, Rutgers, IUPUI, Bath, FOLEC/CLACSO) relate to the SPACE rubric. Please be clear about which of these examples are taken from the pilot, and which are examples of the sort of changes that you hope that use of the SPACE rubric will lead to.

The examples listed are not taken from the pilot, but are the types of outcomes we hope use of the SPACE rubric will lead to. We added a sentence to clarify this point.

d) Some countries [such as Argentina and Mexico] have a national classification system for researchers, whereas others only assess researchers at an institutional level: please comment on what this could imply for the rubric?

Specific use of the rubric will depend on regional as much as institutional context. We added a sentence to clarify this point and expanded on how the rubric might be approached in areas with national classifications systems.

e) It would also be of interest if the authors can expand a bit on the experiences mentioned in piloting the rubric. How many individuals were involved in the piloting? Was there any institution as a whole involved?

Seven individuals from different institutions piloted the rubric for us. No institution as a whole piloted the rubric. We added a paragraph to describe the piloting process in more detail.

f) Please explain/clarify how the language of early-stage/mid-stage/late-stage used in the text relates to the language of foundation/expansion/scaling in the rubric.

Institutions are at different stages of readiness for research assessment reform and therefore may benefit from different types of activities to improve policy and practice. Institutions at the early stages of reform are more likely to benefit from developing foundational capabilities, whereas focusing on building expansion and scaling capabilities are more likely to be helpful for institutions at the mid- and late-stages of reform. We clarified this point in the text.

g) Lines 199-112: Please be more explicit about how SPACE could be deployed to resolve tensions (like the tensions between rankings and equity).

We updated the text to more clearly articulate how the SPACE rubric can be used to resolve tensions, such as university rankings and equity.

h) Lines 181-187: Please consider mentioning that there has been some pushback against the Recognition and Rewards Program in the Netherlands.

We added a few sentences recognizing and expanding on the resistance to the Recognition and Rewards Program in the Netherlands.

i) Please think about the widespread use of the word "researcher" in the article given that the article is arguing that individuals should be assessed on activities other than research.

We agree the use of the term “researcher” can be misleading. Throughout the text we replaced “researcher” with “academic” or “scholar.” There were a few instances where we left “researcher,” because it felt more accurate given the context of the sentence.

https://doi.org/10.7554/eLife.70929.sa2

Article and author information

Author details

  1. Ruth Schmidt

    Ruth Schmidt is an associate professor in the Institute of Design, Illinois Institute of Technology, Chicago, United States

    Contribution
    Conceptualization, Writing - original draft, Writing - review and editing
    Competing interests
    No competing interests declared
    ORCID icon "This ORCID iD identifies the author of this article:" 0000-0002-9390-8469
  2. Stephen Curry

    Stephen Curry is Assistant Provost (Equality, Diversity & Inclusion) and Professor of Structural Biology at Imperial College, London, UK. He is also chair of the DORA steering committee

    Contribution
    Writing - review and editing
    Competing interests
    No competing interests declared
    ORCID icon "This ORCID iD identifies the author of this article:" 0000-0002-0552-8870
  3. Anna Hatch

    Anna Hatch is the program director at DORA, Rockville, United States

    Contribution
    Conceptualization, Writing - original draft, Writing - review and editing
    For correspondence
    ahatch@ascb.org
    Competing interests
    No competing interests declared
    ORCID icon "This ORCID iD identifies the author of this article:" 0000-0002-2111-3237

Funding

No external funding was received for this work.

Acknowledgements

We thank everyone who informed the creation of the SPACE rubric by sharing their thoughts on fair and responsible research assessment with us and piloting various iterations of the rubric. We are especially grateful to Rinze Benedictus, Needhi Bhalla, Noémie Aubert Bonn, Nele Bracke, Elizabeth Gadd, Leslie Henderson, Miriam Kip, Andiswa Mfengu, Wim Pinxten, Olivia Rissland, Yu Sasaki, Tanja Strøm, and James Wilsdon for sharing their insights and feedback with us.

Senior and Reviewing Editor

  1. Peter Rodgers, eLife, United Kingdom

Reviewer

  1. Fernanda Beigel, CONICET-UNCuyo

Publication history

  1. Received: June 4, 2021
  2. Accepted: September 16, 2021
  3. Version of Record published: September 23, 2021 (version 1)

Copyright

© 2021, Schmidt et al.

This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use and redistribution provided that the original author and source are credited.

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