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(Laurie-Anne Benoit / McGill Tribune)

Ontario government: Local research models matter, too

Commentary/Opinion by

Ontario universities are currently working with the provincial government to create and fulfill Strategic Mandate Agreements, the goals of which are to “[build] on current strengths and to help drive system-wide objectives and government priorities.” Part of this process is evaluating a university’s research using bibliometrics—the quantitative analysis of journal articles. Bibliometric data collection is made possible by sophisticated computational algorithms. The specific metrics used in this case are based on the number of papers published and number of citations.

This is an alarming change: Although such methods of evaluation are not unusual, the Strategic Mandate Agreements officialize them and, during the project’s third phase, will tie them to funding. It is dangerous to base research funding on a metric that prioritizes volume of publishing over all else. In fact, such a decision is exclusionary of alternative research models, such as local, community-based, and Indigenous research, which are crucial for creating a multiplicity of academic narratives and sustaining engagement between local contexts and institutions.

Academic research does not exist in a bubble. The Strategic Mandate Agreements leave no room for local, community-based research, which tends to have other goals besides academic publishing and may be conducted in languages other than English. One-size-fits-all research metrics have no place in Canada, where the dominant narratives of academic research sit uneasily beside local models. Publishing is only one end goal, albeit the most visible and glamorous. Researchers should be encouraged to look outside the limited scope of the traditional academic world, and perform research that benefits local communities. In turn, government funds should be allotted to alternative forms of research with priorities other than publishing, for example, providing research services to institutions such as health clinics and information centres in disenfranchised communities.

Publishing is only one end goal, albeit the most visible and glamorous. Researchers should be encouraged to look outside the limited scope of the traditional academic world, and perform research that benefits local communities.

Although the agreements are Ontario-exclusive, if their research evaluation metrics become a Canadian norm, the results might be unfortunate for researchers in Quebec, too—especially those engaging in community-based research. The community-based model is action-driven, emphasizing communication in local contexts. In contrast, publishing-focused bibliometrics, like those of the agreements, tend to prioritize “high impact” English-language journals at the cost of local research. This leaves little space for bilingual fields, such as Quebec studies, or even community-based research conducted with immigrant communities. Local, community-based programs often face unique barriers at research universities—the tenuous existence of the Quebec Studies program at McGill is but one example. To normalize metrics that neglect these programs is to create an institutional bias against local research, which is necessary to strengthen the relationship between the academic institution and the surrounding community.

Indigenous research is another model that, while vital in Canada, might be further marginalized by publishing-based metrics. The Indigenous model often conducts research based on conversation, story, and care. This is not analogous with the Western scientific method, but it is an equally vital alternative narrative. To encode an academic system that devalues Indigenous research methods shuts Indigenous paradigms of learning, data, and history out of universities.

Ontario’s Strategic Mandate Agreements represent a choice to prioritize traditional research and academic publishing, despite the fact that it is now easier than ever to evaluate alternative research. Canadian institutions would do better to create methods for qualifying alternative forms of research, and legitimize a multiplicity of academic narratives. Only then can Canadian academia move toward a paradigm of inclusion and diversity rather than homogeneity.

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