The ethics of research evaluation: the individual

One must endeavour at all times when reading evaluation proposals, policy documents, legislation, white papers, and journal articles without number, to see research in its proper context. Most of these documents suggest that we must see research in the “fullest” context, or the “broader” context. And interestingly, this full broadness has a tendency to favour the economic perspective. This is not necessarily the product of malevolent neoliberal intent. It is often a by-product of the hope that a quantitative approach lends itself to impartiality and objectivity. To an extent, I understand this. But I would say that objectivity and neutrality are not the same thing. To stand to one side and not critique a process which we consider damaging is not impartial, but it is rather decidedly compromised. To regard individuals and processes and structures equally impartially is compromised. To suggest that ‘research’ is a disembodied Thing, to be poked and prodded without consequences is compromised. Research is the product of an individual’s labour. Research is embodied. This is the proper context in which it should be viewed.

Research is the result of an individual’s effort, experience, time, and toil. Even group research isn’t done by a group, but rather by the coordinated activities of individuals in concert. It is not impersonal, and all discussion that disembodies research is to be resisted. The reason it is to be resisted is that all work has a politics. So just as my work implies an ontology, a view of the world which it is necessary to make explicit as per standard research proposal/project structure, it too implies a model of interpersonal and social interaction. That a It is necessary to draw out this politics, this standpoint which can be objectively sketched, certainly, but which by no means implies a ham-strung neutrality. My point about neutrality here is that all forms of impartiality and objectivity should favour the individual, for they are the actors in research. We should not favour an evaluation protocol, or a quantitative methodology, or another disembodied process by putting it in the same category as the individual researcher.

My point, then, is that not to have a politics for ones research and work leaves one at the mercy of those who do. In this, I am assuming the implication of research in a nexus of various vested interests, both within the hierarchy of research, higher education, and broader social and economic networks and institutions. These vested interests are biased in that they have their own responsibilities (to shareholders, voters, boards of directors, etc.), and they can coordinate their activities accordingly. Research, as a whole, does not speak with one voice, but the researchers as individuals should speak for themselves, and be biased in terms of their own interests. This is one of the points that is glossed over in stakeholder theory, that these different stakeholders can be in conflict. Consensus and agreement are not the greatest good here. Indeed, the assumption that some compromises must be found, that there should be some give and take, hides a deeper conflict that needs to be brought out into the open.

A step towards this taking place on a productive footing is that researchers as individuals need to become more explicit about what it is they are doing, and why they are doing it. What makes them, as researchers in Higher Education, different to researchers in private industry, as well as different to business interests, to politicians, to bureaucrats and administrators – even administrators within their own Higher Education Institutions. With this a more open discussion and debate can take place regarding research evaluation and the direction which research should take. Researchers and scholars are citizens, and pay their taxes, and so their views and expertise should not be silenced in favour of the politician’s mythically intolerant and hard-nosed taxpayer, nor the minor deities of Innovation and Growth. Researchers do not necessarily need to speak with one voice (no “X of the world unite!”), but they do need to speak with their own voices, in their own language, and from their own expertise.

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