Posted by: michaeldaybath | February 5, 2013

King Richard III: History, Peer Review and the REF

Twitter, 4 Feb 2013

From Twitter, 4 February 2013

It didn’t take very long. Yesterday, while the project team were still excitedly announcing their findings at a University of Leicester press conference on the identification of a body found last year in a Leicester car park, other scholars were lining-up on Twitter and on “here’s one I prepared earlier” blogs to express their scepticism. Rather than expressing delight at a (for once) positive news story concerning humanities research at a UK university, the general mood amongst some scholars seemed rather churlish and curmudgeonly, a collective sigh of, “Meh?”  … Bah! There is too much public interest! Too much media involvement! Too many logos! It’s all about their REF impact statement! Those Ricardians are mad, I tell you! And, that proves what, exactly?

One of the first out of the blocks was Mary Beard,  Professor of Classics  at the University of Cambridge. On the Leicester team’s identification of the body as being that of King Richard III, she wondered aloud on Twitter whether the discovery really had any historical significance.

@wmarybeard
Gt fun & a mystery solved that we’ve found Richard 3. But does it have any HISTORICAL significance? (Uni of Leics overpromoting itself?))

Recognising that not all arguments can be put over successfully in 140 characters, Professor Beard helpfully elaborated a little on her position later the same day on Twitter and on her blog. In these, she explained that she had been put off in part by the media hype and the prominence of the institutional logos at the press conference (both of which would have been, in all probability, outside the direct control of the research team) [1].

 What put me off was a nexus of things to do with funding, university PR, the priority of the media over peer review, and hype… plus the sense that — intriguing as this was, a nice face to face moment with a dead king — there wasn’t all that much history there, in the sense that I understand it.

The point about the history is a valid one, even if it was one already recognised by the research team at Leicester. While  archaeological evidence like this may be able to enhance very slightly our existing knowledge of – for example, the health and nutrition of late-medieval elites, or the factual basis of Tudor propaganda – finding the body of the final Plantagenet king would probably not, by itself, lead scholars to a complete re-evaluation of late Medieval England (even if the identification could ever be proved beyond reasonable doubt). That is NOT to say, however, that the discovery is of no significance whatsoever. Professor Lin Foxhall of the University of Leicester responded to Professor Beard on Twitter with the obvious comment.

@LinFoxhall
@wmarybeard Oh come on, Mary, how often can we identify a dead king, solve old mysteries, and capture such public interest in the past?

For others, the focus on ‘elites’ was, in fact, the real concern. Almost immediately after the press conference ended, Neville Morley chipped in with a post on the Bristol Classics Blog on archaeology’s supposed obsession with celebrity, famous locations and treasure [2]:

 Why is it that a skeleton is interesting only if it’s that of a famous person? Indeed, why is it that every site must be Camelot, or Caesar’s palace, or the Great Edifice of Wherever, and every object must be Arthur’s chair or Cleopatra’s sewing-kit or Pericles’ wine cup?

I have some sympathy with this view, but the attitude largely seems to originate from the popular media, rather than professional archaeologists. In my own experience, the nature of archaeological evidence means that archaeologists -at least in the UK – are mainly concerned with interpreting the material culture of everyday life, not with chasing the bodies of dead Kings and Queens [3].

Some of Professor Beard’s other reservations relate to process and are, therefore, potentially more serious. They were also expressed in other blogs, perhaps most notably in a series of Guardian opinion pieces expressing reservations about how the discoveries had been presented.

The first reservation related to the lack of peer review. Charlotte Higgins in her Guardian blog expressed concern that the findings – and in particular the DNA evidence – had not first been published in a peer-reviewed journal [4]. The DNA evidence is of particular concern because, as Mark Horton has commented in the New Scientist, in order to be able to understand the significance of the matches that were found, we need to know how common the mtDNA sequences  identified might be in western European populations [5]. Others worried more about the longer-term consequences of publishing research first via press release or conference (something that has been of concern in medicine and healthcare research for decades). Catherine Fletcher of the University of Sheffield warned that “releasing results directly to the media before their publication in learned journals is a new trend” [6]. Perhaps the Leicester team should have waited until their peer-reviewed papers were ready for publication (apparently the paper/s will soon appear in Antiquity), but – in this particular case – one has to accept that the high level of media interest probably meant that this would not have been possible. Conversely, it could also be argued that the findings in this case will receive far more scrutiny than they would have received via traditional peer-review processes alone. Perhaps increased openness may itself be a (partial) substitute for traditional peer-review, especially given the increased focus being given now on the sharing of  research data and on encouraging open access to publicly-funded research outputs?

A second reservation related to the supposed malign influence of the upcoming REF, specifically its requirement for university research to demonstrate “real-world impact.” Higgins suspects that the REF featured highly in the deliberations around the archaeological study [4].

 The affair as a whole – notwithstanding the undoubted integrity, skill and commitment of the individuals at work – seems to me to have been managed in a way that is more about fulfilling the dead-eyed needs of the Research Excellence Framework (the highly contentious new scheme for assessing university research) than with pursuing a genuinely intellectual field of enquiry.

Like it or not, however, the REF seems to be here to stay. It will continue to soak up huge amounts of institutional time and effort. Academics will continue to grumble about it, but – when the time comes – they will mostly hold-their-noses and acquiesce in supporting their institution’s REF submissions and play the game in trying to secure the best possible outcome for their department or school. On publicity, people (like Professor Beard) may express distaste about the activities of university press offices, but that may not stop them eventually having to give a televised presentation in front of a wall of institutional logos (or to be featured in The Poppletonian, or its equivalent). The wider HE reforms in the UK seem designed to pit institution against institution and to criticise the University of Leicester for holding a single press conference seems to be addressing the symptom rather than the cause.

Finally, while discussions about peer review, research evaluation and the growing marketisation of higher education are all useful topics for wider discussion, it did strike me that many of the immediate comments on the Leicester press conference would just be interpreted outside the academy as sour grapes. Surely it could have done no harm to have broadly welcomed a positive news story about interdisciplinary humanities research in a UK university, and to leave the whinging about burgeoning university press offices, peer review and the REF for another day. There will be plenty of time for more detailed debate about the identification of Richard III once the peer-reviewed publications (and data?) become available.  The comments also seemed to pit classicists and historians against archaeologists, with (perhaps) just a hint of snobbery about Leicester (or upstart redbrick universities in general). Taking into account the ongoing squeeze on research funding for archaeology [7], the press conference will (hopefully) at least have persuaded the senior management of the host university (and perhaps other institutions) that departments of archaeology (or professional archaeological units) might be useful things to have around, even if the bodies of no more Plantagenet kings remain to be discovered.

References

[1] Mary Beard, “Richard of York gave battle in vain?” A Don’s Life blog, 4 Feb 2013: http://timesonline.typepad.com/dons_life/2013/02/richard-of-york-gave-battle-in-vain.html

[2] Neville Morely, “Bah. And furthermore, humbug.” Sphinx: the Bristol Classics Blog, 4 Feb 2013: http://bristolclassics.wordpress.com/2013/02/04/bah-and-furthermore-humbug/

[3] For example, Francis Pryor’s multi-volume popular archaeological history of Britain is the antithesis of the traditional “island story” based on Kings and Queens. For the period in question, see: Francis Pryor, Britain in the middle ages: an archaeological history (London: Harper, 2006).

[4] Charlotte Higgins, “Richard III in Leicester: a note of scepticism.” Guardian, 4 Feb 2012: http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture/charlottehigginsblog/2013/feb/04/richardiii-archaeology-leicester-scepticism

[5] Mark Horton, “Leicester’s winter made glorious by Richard III.” New Scientist, 4 Feb 2013: http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn23132-leicesters-winter-made-glorious-by-richard-iii.html

[6] Catherine Fletcher, “Richard III discovery shows scientists playing to the media gallery.” Guardian, 4 Feb 2013: 2012: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/feb/04/richard-iii-scientists-playing-media-gallery

[7] Matt Ford, “Archaeology under threat in UK.” Nature26 Nov 2010. doi:10.1038/news.2010.634

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