My view is that most assessment guidelines permit sliding standards: instead of clearly defined terms, they give us feel-good slogans that lack any fixed meaning. Facing the problem will get us much of the way towards a solution.
Broad language increases room for misinterpretation. ‘High impact’ can be code for where research is published. Or it can mean the effect that research has had on its field, or on society locally or globally — often very different things. Yet confusion is the least of the problems. Descriptors such as ‘world-class’ and ‘excellent’ allow assessors to vary comparisons depending on whose work they are assessing. Academia cannot be a meritocracy if standards change depending on whom we are evaluating. Unconscious bias associated with factors such as a researcher’s gender, ethnic origin and social background helps to perpetuate the status quo. It was only with double-blind review of research proposals that women finally got fair access to the Hubble Space Telescope. Research suggests that using words such as ‘excellence’ in the criteria for grants, awards and promotion can contribute to hypercompetition, in part through the ‘Matthew effect’, in which recognition and resources flow mainly to those who have already received them….”