Entry by Lubna Bin Zayyad
Within the realm of ethics, politics, and social justice – accountability plays an important role. Accountability is also a central issue in research and higher education, which can be termed as research accountability. Research can be defined as the process of learning, entering debates, and/or reexamining our inquiry practices and efforts at ‘representing’ reality (Romm, 2002). Accountability, according to the Cambridge Dictionary, is “the fact of being responsible for what you do and able to give a satisfactory reason for it or the degree to which this happens.”
Research accountability refers to a range of concerns, practices, and guidelines related to “the philosophies, policies, systems, procedures, and standards for analyzing and promoting ethical conduct in research” (Encyclopedia, 2021). The details of what constitutes research accountability vary depending on the context but the idea itself is very much applicable to all departments and areas of study within higher education.
One method to ensuring research accountability within Britain’s Higher Education, suggests the introduction of “an assortment of accountability and monitoring techniques and strategies aimed to overcome all possible sources of inequity, inefficiency, corruption… particularly those arising from the pursuit of self-interest” (Olssen, 2015:133).
An important aspect of research accountability, in addition to taking onus of responsibility, is trust and trustworthiness. We should aim not simply to increase or restore trust, but also place it and refuse it, which requires judgement, information, evidence and care (O’Neil, 2019). Research accountability is important as a tool for decolonizing the curriculum as it ensures fair representation, understanding, inclusion and reconciliation of minority voices within UK higher education.
Earlier discussion of research accountability in the literature based on the arguments of positivism and the “development of empirical scientific approach grounded in observation and experimentation” as an approach to the study of society (Romm, 2002:1). The dialogue between research accountability and higher education follows a similar approach, primarily within the context of the life and medical sciences.
However, it is now becoming not only more widely discussed, but accepted, that research accountability is also central to the social sciences – particularly in terms of positionality, intersectionality, power relations and even research methods. For example, this study on the effects of Hurricane Katrina examines research accountability within the context of researcher-participant collaboration.
Within a UK context:
The adoption of neoliberal policies under the Thatcher government is credited with being a catalyst for reforms relating to university and educational restructuring (Olssen, 2015). The majority of these reforms had to do with streamlining and evaluating research funding. Over the last four decades there has been a few systems in place to check research accountability in UK higher education including:
- The UK Funding Councils who were tasked with assessing accountability in research output and quality in the 1980s (note that this council no longer exists).
- The Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) first implemented in 1986 and then in 1989, 1992, 1996, 2001 and 2008, was created with the purpose “survey the quantity and scope of research” related to “accountability and efficiency, to gauge resource allocation and improve decision-making, and to assist with governance.” (Olssen, 2015:134).
- The Research Excellence Framework (REF) was established in 2014, with the mission of assessing the “quality of research in the UK higher education institutions.” (REF, 2021).
- UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), the most recently created regulatory body (2018), with the aim of bringing together the seven disciplinary research councils responsible for supporting research and knowledge exchange at higher education institutions.
Some of the criticisms of earlier systems (in particular the RAE and REF), included concerns about:
- Subjective judgements that can heavily influence the outcome (Finsden, 2008)
- Imposing a set of narrowly defined criteria
- The role played by internal departmental politics in favouring some paradigms over others, prioritising some sorts of academic research over others, prioritising approaches which fitted with a department or schools core offerings, or represented personal or paradigm animosities or factionalism (Olssen, 2015:134)
Questions to ask:
- What best practices can be disseminated within UK higher education to improve the effectiveness of research accountability and assessment?
- Do we need regulatory boards in place to assess research accountability? Are the current regulations sufficient?
- How does research accountability affect representation, diversity and the inclusion of minority voices in research?
- What does research accountability look like in a digital age?
- How does trust play into research accountability?
- How do we ensure the range of voices, research and data is represented in our university curriculum?
Abelmann, C., & Elmore, R. (1999). When accountability knocks, will anyone answer? Philadelphia: Consortium for Policy Research in Education, University of Pennsylvania. Google Scholar
“Accountability in Research .” Encyclopedia of Science, Technology, and Ethics. Encyclopedia.com. (June 16, 2021). https://www.encyclopedia.com/science/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/accountability-research
Bob Lingard. (2008). Globalising research accountabilities, Contemporary Issues in Education 27:1, 152 – 163. https://pesaagora.com/access-archive-files/ACCESSAV27N1N2_152.pdf
Jacob Ohrvik-Stott. (2018). Accountability in the digital age: Imagining an internet regulator, Medium. Available at https://medium.com/doteveryone/accountability-in-the-digital-age-imagining-an-internet-regulator-2390e30c5853 [Accessed 12 Feb 2022].
Mark Olssen. (2016). Neoliberal competition in higher education today: research, accountability and impact, British Journal of Sociology of Education, 37:1, 129-148.
Onora O’Neill. (2020). Trust and Accountability in a Digital Age, Philosophy, 95:1, 3–17.
Encyclopedia (n.d.). Accountability in Research | Encyclopedia.com. [online] Available at: https://www.encyclopedia.com/science/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/accountability-research [Accessed 12 Feb 2022].
Finsden, B. (2008). “The RAE in Scotland: A Kiwi Participant-observer in an Ancient University.” Access: Critical Perspectives on Communication, Cultural & Policy Studies, 27 (1 and 2): 61–72.
Olssen, M. (2016). Neoliberal competition in higher education today: research, accountability and impact. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 37:1, 129-148.
Romm, N. R. A. (2002). Accountability in social research: issues and debates. London: Springer.