ICA Presidents Question Quantitative Assessments of Quality of Research and Teaching in Communication

With the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) being planned for all Hong Kong universities in 2014, two former and the current President of the International Communication Association (ICA) were the keynote speakers at the Symposium on the Quality of Communication Research and Teaching in Hong Kong, the U.S. and Europe, held at City University on November 6. ICA is one of the major international academic organizations in the field of communication studies and research (http://www.icahdq.org).


The speakers praised this as a rare opportunity to discuss and assess the state of academic teaching and research in communication in Hong Kong, the U.S. and Europe in a comparative way.  Among other things, they all raised important concerns about the prevailing practices of assessing research and teaching quality by some crude quantitative measures without contextualizing what these measures mean.


Professor Jan Servaes, Chair Professor and Head of the Department of Media and Communication at the City University of Hong Kong, opened the symposium with a number of basic but critical questions about quality control, online teaching, peer review, and rankings of researchers, journals and departments.


Professor Patrice M. Buzzanell of Purdue University, and Former ICA President 2008-2009, and Professor François Heinderyckx of the Universite Libre de Bruxelles, Belgium, and current ICA President 2013-2014, provided a brief overview of the state of teaching and research at US and European universities respectively.  Professor Buzzanell pointed out that higher education in the U.S. is having a “tsunami” and must face up to the new challenges.  In analyzing the complexity involved in assessing European universities, Professor Heinderyckx rejected what he considered a “hard” and threatening approach of assessment and instead recommended a “soft” and encouraging approach as being used by the French-speaking universities in Belgium.


Professor Cynthia Stohl of the University of California, Santa Barbara, and Immediate Past ICA President 2012-2013, summarized the opportunities and challenges academic teaching and research is faced with under four trends: internationalizing, monetizing, publicizing and technologizing. In each trend she highlighted positive and negative aspects that are affecting the future of education.  


Invited as rejoinders were Professor Anthony Fung, Director of the School of Journalism and Communication at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Professor Colin Sparks, Chair Professor in the Department of Journalism at the Hong Kong Baptist University, and Professor Chin Chuan Lee, Chair Professor in the Department of Media and Communication at the City University of Hong Kong.  They all acknowledged that Hong Kong is no exception to the problems identified by the ICA Presidents. In a way, Hong Kong, being a bit of a latecomer in the race for rankings and prestige, seems to be repeating the errors made in the U.S. and Europe ten to twenty years ago.


While universities in the U.S. and Europe are having second thoughts about quantitative metrices for impact and quality, the local rejoinders noted, Hong Kong administrators and the University Grants Commission (UGC) seem to remain blind believers in quantitative assessment systems. For example, most Hong Kong policymakers and researchers alike haven’t yet paid much attention to the so-called San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA http://am.ascb.org/dora/), which clearly identifies the limitations and flaws in the Impact Factor as the most popular numerical measure of a scientist’s work, and advises against the use of it “as a surrogate measure of the quality of individual research articles, to assess an individual scientist’s contributions, or in hiring, promotion, or funding decisions”. ICA is one of the 400 co-signatories of DORA.


Professor Sparks pleaded for a more normative and engaged approach to communication teaching and research. While skills training is important, the more lasting tools our graduates need to make it in their professional careers, are creative and critical thinking, he argued.


Professor Lee  jokingly commented  that ICA should first clarify the ‘international’ in its name. “We don’t need more American communication paradigms but a genuine attempt to ‘internationalize’ international communication”, he quipped. He also noted that today’s journal articles may be technically sanitized and better structured, there are — obviously under pressure of annual performance appraisals –,more of the same and less which would ‘spark’ intellectual debate than in the past.  In  response, Professor Stohl acknowledged that ICA has been trying hard to “internationalize” itself and would very much like to “learn” from colleagues how to do a better job.


The 80 participants to the symposium expressed appreciation for the statements and observations, and engaged in a lively debate afterwards.


The symposium was a joint initiative by the three major Hong Kong-based Departments of Communication: The School of Journalism and Communication at The Chinese University of Hong Kong, the Department of Communication at Hong Kong Baptist University, and the Department of Media and Communication at the City University of Hong Kong.


From left: Professor Jan Servaes, Professor Patrice M. Buzzanell, Professor Cynthia Stohl, Professor Heinderyckx, Professor Colin Sparks, Professor Chin Chuan Lee, Professor Anthony Fung

The rejoinders express their observation and comments.

The participants engage in a lively debate