A trusted system used to measure the quality of academic research produced at many of the world's leading universities is highly problematic, a study has found.
A team of organisational psychologists at the universities of Exeter, Leeds and Loughborough looked at how 168 business and management academics rank the specialist journals in which they publish research and found widespread bias is inherent in the system.
The study, 'Experts judgements of management journal quality: the role of identity concerns in a contested domain', raises questions about the role of journal lists as a measure of academic excellence.
Based on a well-established body of knowledge in social psychology known as "social identity theory", the team predicted and found that subject experts' evaluations of research in business and management are swayed heavily by personal biases.
Dr Kim Peters of the University of Exeter's School of Psychology, who led the study, said: "Academics rated the quality of journals more favourably when they had published more papers in that journal, when they were a member of the journal's board, when the journal reflected their academic interests and their geographical location. We found a bias from start to finish."
Professor Gerard Hodgkinson of Leeds University Business School, who co-authored the study. said: "Our findings turned out entirely as expected on the basis of our theoretical predictions. For instance, a qualitatively-oriented scholar with a background in sociology will tend to rate journals that favour sociologically-oriented and qualitative studies more highly than a colleague with a background in psychology and a leaning toward quantitative methods.
"There is a rational explanation for the pattern of findings we observed - such judgements serve to bolster the experts' sense of selfhood and belonging. Personal and social identity concerns are the primary driving force behind how we evaluate research quality, but our judgements are also constrained to some extent by the objective reality of the context in which they occur.
"So, for example we found widespread agreement among our participants that North American journals are generally of a higher quality than UK/European ones. Nevertheless, even here there was a tendency toward a bias of geography, with North American scholars tending to rate UK/European journals more harshly than UK/European scholars."
Although the study focused on how business and management journals are rated, the authors stress that the approach they used means the results could be extrapolated across other academic disciplines and fields of study.
Professor Kevin Daniels of Loughborough University said: "The study raises serious questions concerning the use of journal rankings in judging some aspects of research performance.
"At the very least, compilers of such lists may need to make their methods as transparent and as rigorous as might be expected in a peer-reviewed article, so that the lists themselves can be judged. However, a serious rethink may be needed on alternative or supplementary approaches that are rigorous, fair and also seen to be rigorous and fair."
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Notes to Editors
The study 'Experts judgements of management journal quality: the role of identity concerns in a contested domain' by Kim .O Peters, Kevin Daniels, Gerard P. Hodgkinson and S. Alexander Haslam' was presented at the prestigious 2009 Academy of Management Meeting, Chicago, IL in August.
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