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‘Bibliometrics’ is flawed

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So you think it’s just the NHS that is fixated with star ratings and ridiculous performance measurement frameworks? Proposals to reform the way that research monies are allocated, and indeed reputations are formed, in higher education institutions (HEI) have been dropped on us.

The suggestion is that the research assessment exercise (RAE) is replaced by a new research excellence framework (REF). What is causing a stir is the proposal to use ‘bibliometrics’ to inform the task.

The RAE had its problems, with nurse researchers grimly focused on achieving criteria including – developing a reputation in their field, generating research income through bidding and publishing at least four journal articles of international standing every eight years.

With bibliometrics, the focus of measurement will instead be on how many times authors’ publications are cited by other authors. This is intended to be an indication of how valuable a contribution they have made.

What is problematic is that there are opportunities for use of underhand tactics to increase the citation rate of one’s article. These include saying something outrageous so that people reference the article, even if it is an opinion piece and not a high-quality research article. Some authors may form ‘citation clubs’ where they agree to cite each other’s work to maximise the count. Others may cite their own work repeatedly.

This is only important for nurses working in HEIs, you may think. Not so. This approach is set to influence what research is carried out, as unpopular research will be sidelined in favour of highly citable, topical work addressing what may be passing flavours of the moment, such as infection control and obesity. Out-of-vogue studies or those on a very specialised topic will be cited less, so HEIs employing nurses carrying out such research may find their income reduced.

This may in turn affect staffing levels, course availability and sustainability of some HEIs as education providers.

In response to the REF consultation, leading nurse researchers have said that peer review should be included, as the importance of a nursing article cannot be appraised through citation count alone.

Peers will be able to comment on the impact of works on our profession and its practice. This is important as the proposed category for nursing is ‘science’ where it will compete with ‘pure’ disciplines such as medicine, which are more suited to bibliometrics.

The results of the REF will probably not be known until after 2015, so there’s plenty of time for posturing and game-playing. Hopefully, the nurse researchers who deserve it will be seeing stars before their eyes for all the right reasons.

Tracey Williamson is research fellow, older people/user involvement, Salford Centre for Nursing, Midwifery and Collaborative Research, University of Salford

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