Research Excellence – the Goldfinger interview


Dean of Research Alan Irwin gives in a monthly column written by the Senior Management his point of view on research excellence at CBS.


By Alan Irwin

You have seen the movie. We find the dean of research strapped to a table, a laser beam about to split him in half. His inquisitor smirks:

‘ So you have sixty seconds to answer the question. How exactly is research excellence defined at CBS?’

‘Do you expect me to talk?’

‘No, Mr Dean. I expect you to die.’

‘Well, in that case there’s the FT45 ranking and don’t forget UTD and then there’s the ABS list. We take account of Web of Science citations and also Google Scholar. And in fact we value publications in several languages – including of course our national language. Did I mention the national bibliometric system? Of course, external funding can also be a mark of esteem. And could you please be so kind as to point that thing somewhere else? Take the European Research Council, for example. Or the Danish National Research Foundation. Excellence can also be demonstrated by successful collaboration with industrial partners.  Isn’t it getting rather warm in here? And we shouldn’t overlook.…’

At this point, we must leave the dean to his presumed fate, wondering perhaps why the bad guy is always in such a rush that he can’t stay around till the end of the scene.  And what is going to happen to the rest of the film if our hero is killed off in scene one?

The setting may (hopefully) be improbable, but the question at its heart is real. We are all in favour of research excellence. But what is it and how do we know when we have found it? At a time of global rankings and funding selectivity, this question could hardly be more significant. A sixty second answer may not be appropriate for such a complex question, but let me at least offer five propositions.

When it comes to excellence, less is more. No matter how many times I say this, there is still a strong belief out there that the more articles and books one produces, the stronger one’s claim to excellence. Excellence and quantity can of course co-exist – although usually for a short period. But in general I want to say set your sights high, get the advice and criticism of your colleagues, don’t be scared to fail.

Take rankings and indicators seriously, but use them wisely. Much good work is published in out-of-the-way places. However, an article in a top journal or a book with a major international publisher will (in general) get more attention. We all want our work to be read and taken seriously – so why not put it where it will have the greatest impact? But do not under-sell or distort your own work in order to gain publication. And editors can make mistakes.

Excellence takes different forms. So far, I have mentioned excellence in publication, but there is also excellence in bringing new ideas to society, excellence in building research teams, excellence in research-based education and (yes) excellence in winning external grants.  Excellence can also look different in different parts of our wonderful institution – although I do think we share certain scholarly standards and certain academic norms.

But we can’t be excellent in everything. This is a real challenge. There have to be limits to what one university can reasonably achieve. And work may be excellent, but we may choose not to pursue it since it doesn’t meet our identity, strategic direction or funding possibilities. So building excellence also involves making choices.

Excellence is about judging research by the highest international standards. For me, this in the end is what it all comes down to. If you claim excellence, then I will ask with whom are you comparing yourself, how does your work stand against the leading international research and how large is the community of your peers? So research excellence at CBS should be defined not by how we see ourselves but where we stand in relation to the very best in our field – whether this be in terms of books and journals, research-based education, engaged scholarship or the pursuit of competitive funding.

At this point, the laser beam abruptly stops. If the dean of research managed to escape, he’ll be back in CBS Share and CBS Observer in a few months for another exciting adventure

The page was last edited by: Communications // 03/25/2014