Published on 20.06.2024

Research Assessment Practices at the UniFr and CoARA

Research Assessment: A Complex Topic

Although often controversial, the assessment of research (RA) is a crucial topic for the University of Fribourg. As a cantonal and thus, public institution, we are keen to be transparent about our research activities and their impact and therefore, live up to the high standard of accountability that is rightly expected of us. The evaluation of research can be a great tool to achieve this, but it is also a highly complex task. For some decades, standard research evaluation practice has focused on measuring traditional forms of research output, such as journal articles or books. This emphasis on the final products of research has proved to have some unfortunate, unintended consequences. For one, it can be fraught with difficulty to compare output-centred metrics across disciplines because of varying publishing cultures and various levels of availability of bibliometric data, which can lead to skewed visions of the activities of entire research disciplines. Potentially even more serious is the fact that the focus on publications has set incentives for researchers that are not in alignment with the key research values of integrity and transparency, and have thus led in some cases to questionable practices such as, for instance, the salami-slicing of results into several papers instead of one, which can pay off in terms of citation indexes.[1] These complex issues surrounding research assessment come into play in a great variety of situations that are part of daily life at a university, such as the allocation of internal research funds, the hiring and promotion of academic staff, and the evaluation of PhD theses.

CoARA: The University of Fribourg Commits to Reviewing and Reforming its RA Practices

The University of Fribourg is keen for its members to act responsibly in these situations and to base their evaluation practices on the best available research on research evaluation available to us. Therefore, UniFr became the first cantonal Swiss university to join the Coalition for Advancing Research Assessment (CoARA) shortly after it was founded in 2022. With this early positioning, the UniFr set an important accent by recognising the review and reform of existing research evaluation practices as part of its mission. The Coalition is formed around an agreement text that has been jointly drafted by Science Europe, the European University Association, and the European Commission, as well as with the input of more than 300 research-performing organisations. Though most early signatories hail from Europe, the scope and ambition of CoARA is very much global and it has built up considerable momentum since 2022. Today, well over 700 organisations are CoARA members, with more joining practically every week. In Switzerland, the UNIL, UZH, UNIGE, as well as EPFL, ETHZ, and BFH, have now signed the agreement, and a number of important Swiss research organisations, such as the SNSF, Swissuniversities, Swiss Academies of Arts and Sciences have become full members like the UniFr.  

What Is CoARA?

The CoARA agreement consists of ten commitments, including the pledge to abandon inappropriate usage of publication metrics, such as the H-index and Journal Impact Factor, when assessing research. This part of the agreement is in full alignment with DORA, which UniFr has also signed and made significant efforts to implement. The CoARA commitments, however, also include further points, such as a promise to abstain from using university rankings in the assessment of individual researchers and a broad recognition of the diversity of contributions to, and careers in, research. The agreement is further framed by the overarching principles of “Quality and Impact” and “Diversity, Inclusiveness, and Collaboration” that should at all times guide research assessment. The elaboration of the former principle makes explicit that CoARA seeks to integrate the recognition of contributions to Open Science within research assessment. In turn, the latter principle seeks to inscribe a commitment to research evaluation practices that are not only responsive to the diversity of disciplines, research processes, and individuals contributing to research but actively seek to value and enhance them.  It is in these respects that CoARA broadens the path cleared by previous initiatives aiming to reform research assessment. Finally, it is also crucial to note that CoARA is anchored in the principle of scientific freedom and autonomy. It encourages each research institution to create its own path towards responsible research assessment.

How Will CoARA Be Implemented at the UniFr?

At the UniFr, we have begun to collect the planned and ongoing efforts in the various faculties and departments that aim to review and reform research assessments for inclusion in the CoARA action plan, which we will finalise this year and share publicly with other CoARA members.  The rectorate has further decided to install a CoARA Working Group consisting of representative researchers from all faculties, a representative from the CSWM, as well as representatives from the relevant central services (EDI, Open Science, SPR, and Quality Assurance) to both draft the action plan and implement it over the coming four years. By bringing together a variety of status groups and stakeholders in this manner, it is hoped that we will be able to increase the awareness of this reform and create robust and well-adapted solutions for research assessment in a collaborative process involving actors from across the UniFr. The Working Group will decide on the key internal topics and areas that our CoARA action plan will seek to address. One key topic that has already been identified is the better recognition of contributions to Open Research Data practices in research assessment. A project dedicated to this specific issue, co-financed by swissuniversities, is already underway at UniFr. You can read more about this here.

What does all of this mean for you? If you work in research at the UniFr, then we are interested in your view and vision of how we can improve research assessment. If you, your research group, or your department engage in practices and initiatives to critically reflect how you assess research, we would love to hear from you. If you have any more general comments or questions, you can contact the members of the CoARA working group:

  • Regine Maritz at the Service Promotion de Recherche for any general queries about the aims and content of CoARA and its implementation at the UniFr

For specific queries and input pertaining to specific faculties and services, you can contact the following persons:

  • Prof Jessica Clough, representative for the Faculty of Science (and Medicine)
  • Prof Zhihong Yang, representative for the Faculty of Medicine (and Science)
  • Prof Nesina Grütter, representative for the Faculty of Theology
  • Prof Stefan Nüesch, representative for the Faculty of Management, Economics and Social Sciences
  • Prof Julia Straub, representative of the Faculty of Humanities
  • (The representative for the Faculty of Law will be announced at a later stage)
  • Prof Jürgen Sauer, representative of the UniFr Research Commission
  • PD Marie-Noëlle Giraud, representative of the CSWM
  • Alessandro Lazzari, Quality Assurance Service
  • Muriel Besson, Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion Office
  • Thomas Henkel, Open Science Team

[1] Collyer, T.A. ‘Salami slicing’ helps careers but harms science. Nature Human Behaviour 3, 1005–1006 (2019)., and De Rijcke, Sarah, Clemencia Cosentino, Robin Crewe, Carlo D’Ippoliti, Shaheen Motala-Timol, Noorsaadah Binti A Rahman, Laura Rovelli, David Vaux, and Yao Yupeng. “The Future of Research Evaluation: A Synthesis of Current Debates and Developments.” Centre for Science Futures, May 10, 2023., here esp. 1.1.