Stuck on the Alps with a map of the Pryenees

I’ve written before about the ABS List. As a result of that blog post I had some email correspondence with the editors of the list which was very informative.

For those who don’t know the ABS List serves as a guide to journal quality and – by proxy the quality of published research. It’s espoused function is to help researchers find appropriate outlets for their work. But it’s been taken up purely as a means for managing researchers. For this reason, the ABS decided not to publish any updated versions of the the guide since (I think) 2010 – claiming, apparently, that to do so would destabilized REF preparations. You see, most business school use the ABS List to calibrate their probable REF success. Obviously, this means that we have a guide that is several years out of date (ie an inaccurate guide).

One unintended consequence of this intentional decision to stick with an old guide became apparent to me yesterday. I had a performance review and was asked to set goals for the next year. When I asked for examples of goals I was told that one might be ‘To submit a paper to a 3* or 4* journal’. Now, the problem is as follows. I could submit a paper to a 4* journal on the current ABS List but there’s no way to know that, in the three years since it’s been published, it’s still a 4* journal. So I could, for example, submit my article to a supposedly 4* journal and receive an incremental pay rise from the university for doing so only to find, once the ABS List is finally updated, that since 2010 the journal has not been a 4* outlet at all. Presumably at this point, I could start to get hassled to publish my work in 4* outlets by university managers (although, I have to say my institution does not really go in for that kind of brow-beating). In short, after giving me a bonus for submitting, maybe even publishing, in top journals the university could start to discipline me for not doing so without me doing anything at all. Conversely, I could not get a pay rise for submitting my work to a supposedly non-3* or 4* journal only to find out that it was a 3* or 4* journal all along. At which point, I’d not only ask for my pay rise but would expect too be paid even more given that others who got pay rises actually didn’t deserve them.

So, for long term planning and goal setting, the perversion of the list could have some real unintended consequences for departments and individuals. I understand that the ABS didn’t want to destablize REF preparation. But, by definition, this means that we are working to the wrong map. The result, for me at least, is that rather than guiding my decisions, I’m now trying to predict what the ABS List might say in the future. In short, the guide has become a tool to make personal judgements around rather than a standard guide.

So here’s an open source challenge, could someone who knows statistics get the ABS List methodology, run the analysis and make it available to everyone. If you want to destabilize the REF, the ABS have told you exactly what to do! Forget workshops, marches and letters to the THE. Publish an updated list.

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