Free-range research

Lena Gray considers the seductive appeal of academic freedom

Empty bird cageAs researchers, we are constantly grappling with issues surrounding identity and independence. I read Barry MacDonald’s work on the subject at a time when I was seeking clues about my own research endeavours. MacDonald creates a clear hierarchy of types of investigative work, distinguishing between researchers and evaluators, and then between evaluation that is democratic, autocratic or bureaucratic (1976). These ideas are seductive and appealing; however, as with that glamorous person you spy across a room, it’s not usually a good idea to get too attached to them!

For MacDonald, the quality of the research is linked to the context in which it is undertaken. Following this model, investigation carried out within an organisation that has governmental ties would be classed as evaluation, not research proper. But how many academics want to think of their work as ‘bureaucratic evaluation’?

The difference between research and evaluation – and between the categories of evaluation – lies in degrees of academic freedom, according to MacDonald. This topic has received a lot of media attention recently: in Scotland, universities fear that the government's proposed changes to governance structures will threaten both their charitable status and their academic freedom. Similar concerns have been raised by academics around the world – even in countries that pride themselves on free speech. Closer to home, there have been some high-profile debates in England and Northern Ireland.

I recently attended a conference with assessment researchers from all over Europe; it led me to reflect on these media stories and what it means to have (or not have) academic freedom. As I looked down the long and fascinating list of conference papers, and around each seminar room, it was clear that the research on offer was not constrained by narrow definitions, disciplinary boundaries or methodological prejudices. All sorts of individuals and organisations presented their work; I suspect few of them would differentiate between research and evaluation, and few would claim – or even want – academic freedom.

We all have pressure on us, whether that pressure comes from government policies, funding constraints, lack of available researchers with the right skills (at the right time), or just the sheer difficulty of gathering evidence about people in a complex world. I doubt any researcher these days would describe themselves as ‘free’. 

So, if our research is not free, how can we claim value for it? That is the very question MacDonald was trying to answer in creating his typology. His aim was to define value and to challenge evaluators to make explicit their own values and the value of their work.

At the Centre for Education Research and Practice (CERP), we are fortunate that our parent organisation AQA allows us independence. This doesn't mean that we can carry out and publish any research we fancy; why should it? What research needs is not to be free, but to be trusted.

So, how do we achieve this?

Our researchers come from a range of disciplines and backgrounds. To carry out operational services for AQA, we need to ensure that we have scientific research and data analysis skills. But that doesn't mean we are trapped in a logical positivist worldview. We learn from our qualitative researchers that declaring our own allegiances and constraints is vital for the integrity of any piece of research.

This year, we are celebrating the fortieth anniversary of our research committee. Around the time that MacDonald was writing his influential paper, one of AQA’s predecessor organisations was establishing its first research division.

So, if our research is not free, how can we claim value for it?

What matters, then, is not that we are free, but that we ‘show our workings’ (to borrow a phrase from our examiners). Every piece of research starts from a value position and a set of judgements, whether those are individual or shaped by politics or funding. Our job is to demonstrate in as many ways as we can – to MacDonald’s ‘multiple audiences’ – that our research has integrity and honesty. The only way we can do this is to provide the information to others so that they can judge for themselves. At our recent anniversary celebration, Professor Paul Newton called this ‘ripping off the cloak of secrecy’. (You can view the programme booklet, which includes lecture notes, here.)

To be trusted, we don’t need academic freedom: we need the communication skills to be able to express our position as unambiguously as possible. That, I would suggest, is the real challenge for research in the 21st century. Research exists for the public good, so we must engage with the public. MacDonald told us 40 years ago: if we want to be trustworthy then we must try to be transparent. That means being open about our allegiances; but more than that, it means trying to communicate our research in ways that as many people as possible can engage with. We should focus on clear communication, which allows others to challenge us. If we have honesty and transparency then we don't need academic freedom.

Lena Gray

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