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Researchers should be rated, but also rewarded

Michael Cherry (see Time to abandon ratings for South African researchers) suggests that the rating of researchers in South Africa is a policy linked to apartheid-era mentality and should be abandoned.

Securing a rating from the National Research Foundation (NRF) involves a panel of six expert referees, many of them from overseas, evaluating academics' research outputs. The emphasis is on peer review and the focus is unashamedly international. In every other sphere of contemporary life — whether in business, sport or health — South Africa compares itself with international benchmarks. Why should research be any different?

Cherry has said that creative endeavour can only really flourish in a collegial environment. I disagree. In the words of my colleague, Tim Noakes, "too many people have a very large comfort zone, with excessive rewards that blunt an ambition which is too easily satisfied".

The principle of competition is one of the key reasons that America's system of higher education is the best in the world. And a journal such as Nature, for which Cherry is a correspondent, has a high international standing, precisely because it rejects over 90% of all articles submitted and not because of its collegial attitude to publishing.

In one of the only serious scientific analyses of the NRF rating system, Barry Lovegrove and Steven Johnson, from the University of KwaZulu-Natal, recently compared the ratings of 163 botanists and zoologists with a well-recognised bibliometric score, the h-index. There was a significant positive correlation between the two measures.

For those researchers who are dissatisfied with their ratings, it is relevant that the rating is not static. Researchers must renew their ratings every five years and I am aware of two former deans at the University of Cape Town who managed to upgrade their ratings from B to A during their deanships, while another, over a 20-year period, improved from C to B to A. Clearly, they did not feel they were being "graded like meat" nor were they disillusioned with the system.

One of the greatest challenges for the NRF and Higher Education South Africa (HESA), in supporting and sustaining the rating system, is to provide a reason why individual researchers should strive to secure a rating. I agree with Cherry that the ratings serve little useful function if their primary purpose is for university administrators to score points with one another.

The NRF needs to ensure that researchers each receive an annual incentive linked to their rating. This would allay the fears researchers may harbour that their ratings benefit the institution but not the individual. It would appear that such a policy has recently been approved, with recommended amounts of 100,000 South African rand (US$12,800), 80,000 rand and 40,000 rand for A, B and C ratings respectively. This is a step in the right direction.

If South Africa's institutions of higher learning are to raise the level of their game and compete on a global stage, the NRF rating system should not be abandoned. It should be expanded.