Evaluating Research

At many of the external meetings I have attended over the last few months, the issue of evaluating research and research productivity has been raised.  How does one even begin to evaluate research productivity, particularly with respect to university research?

There are numerous rankings of university research available online.  Many will focus on articles published or money received.  While this is certainly one way to rank or evaluate universities, it is a very narrow focus.  In these findings, often the large research intensive universities come out on the top and the smaller universities are at the bottom.  An interesting perspective is to consider the number of publications per research dollar.  In this ranking, the small universities will move to the top.  The research that takes place at the large universities may be more expensive because they have the newest and best equipment and are conducting research that cannot be done at smaller universities.  However, you can argue that the research that is carried out at the smaller universities is much more efficient.  Because publications are historical and the funding is current, one can also flip this around and argue that the researchers at small universities are receiving less than their fair share of the funding dollars.

But this only scratches the surface of the value of research.  What about the research that costs next to nothing but has a real impact on the local community?  What about the humanities and social science research that impacts the way we view the world around us?  What about …?  The list goes on.  There are so many ways that research contributes to society that to try and quantity it with a simple number is impossible.  In a time when many are trying to put performance indicators on university research, we need to ensure that research is viewed and measured from the larger perspective and not simply measured by the number of publications or sum of research funding.