The key point of the report is that there is some confusion among researchers about what exactly it is they're supposed to be doing. There are conflicting and unclear messages form different bodies about what sort of research contributions are valued. The perception is that the only thing that really counts in terms of research assessment is peer-reviewed journal articles. Other contributions, such as conference proceedings, books, book chapters, monographs, government reports and so on are not valued. As a result, the proportion journal articles compared to other outputs increased significantly between 2003 and 2008. A couple of comments by researchers quoted in the report (p.15):
[There is] much more emphasis on peer reviewed journals …Conferences, working papers and book chapters are pretty much a waste of time … Books and monographs are worth concentrating on if they help one demarcate a particular piece of intellectual territory.
There is a strong disincentive to publish edited works and chapters in edited works, even though these are actually widely used by researchers and educators in my field, and by our students.
This is certainly the impression I get from my own field. In fact, I have been advised by senior colleagues to target high-impact journals, rather than, for example, special publications. I have never received any formal guidance on what research outputs are expected of me, but the prevailing atmosphere gives the impression that it's all about journal articles. After publishing a couple of things from my PhD, it took another three years to publish anything from my first post-doc. I worried about that: it seemed that the numerous conferences and internal company reports and presentations I produced over that time counted for nothing career-wise.
The report makes it clear that, in the case of the RAE, it is more perceptios than the reality causing the problem: the RAE rules meant that most outputs were admissible, and all would be treated equally. But it's perceptions that drive the way researchers respond to research assessment. Clearer guidance is needed.
An interesting point brought up by the report is how, when there is more than one author for a journal article, the list of authors is arranged. In my field, authors are typically listed in order of contribution, so I was surprised to find that this is by no means always the case. In some fields, especially in the humanities and social sciences, authors are commonly listed alphabetically. In some cases, the leader of the research group is listed first, in other cases last. And there are various mixtures of listing by contribution, grant-holding and alphabetic order. There is even a significant minority where papers based on work done by students have the student's supervisor as first author! This means that there is no straightforward way of apportioning credit to multiple authors of a paper, something that David Colquhoun has already pointed out. This is a huge problem for any system of assessment based on bibliometrics.
The report also examines how researchers cite the work of other people. Other researcher's work should be cited because it forms part of the background of the new research, because it supports a statement made in the new paper, or as part of a discussion of how the new paper fits into the context of previous research. Crucially, this includes citing work with which the authors disagree, or that is refuted or cast into doubt in the light of the new work (p.30):
Citing somebody often indicates opposition / disagreement, rather than esteem and I am as likely to cite and critique work that I do not rate highly as work I value.
So any system that relies on bibliometric indicators is likely to reward controversial science as much as good science (not that those categories are mutually exclusive, but they don't completely overlap either).
Researchers are perfectly clear that a system based on bibliometrics will cause them to change their publication behaviour: 22% will try to produce more publications, 33% will submit more work to high-status journals, 38% will cite their collaborators work more often, while 6% will cite their competitors work less often. This will lead to more journal articles of poorer quality, a the decline of perfectly good journals that have low "impact", and corruption in citation behaviour. In general, researchers aren't daft, and they've clearly identified the incentives that would be created by such a system.
The report presents a worrying picture of research, and scientific literature, distorted by the perverse incentives created by poorly thought-out and opaque forms of research assessment. It can be argued that scientists who allow their behaviour to be distorted by these incentives are acting unprofessionally: I wouldn't disagree. But for individuals playing the game, the stakes are high. Perhaps we ought to be thinking about whether research is the place for playing games. It surely can't lead to good science.