Why Narrative CVs are changing how we think about researcher assessment

The narrative CV is designed to allow you to make visible all the relevant contributions you have made to the research and innovation community

In the academic world, the CV is a common document that combines an inventory of scientific achievements, a brief presentation of professional experience, an administrative requirement and a job search resource, the function of the CV is commonly accepted and shared, the document itself is known to exist in a variety of formats and to have evolved over time.

For some years now, various organizations have been recommending the use of narrative CVs to improve the way researchers are assessed. The academic community is becoming increasingly concerned about biases in research evaluation, and particularly researcher evaluation. They are critical of the excessive use of bibliometric indicators to the detriment of the societal impact of research.

For their supporters, narrative academic CVs present a means to bypass aspects of a research evaluation culture that is overly focused on the volume and venue of publications. Drawing on a sample of work promoting this format we show how these texts more often foreground the problems they are meant to address, than how the format would work in practice. However, at the same time, they argue that the emergence of this new format and terminologies, is reopening debates around the role academic assessment can play in promoting better research culture and practices.

Alongside these initiatives, a number of recommendations have been made, including the use of narrative CVs. But what is a narrative CV? As there are few research studies dedicated to this type of document, we have relied on what its promoters have to say about it and on feedback from the various organizations that have made it mandatory for their recruitment processes. We identified 28 opinion pieces from advocacy coalitions, universities, funders, learned societies, governmental or intergovernmental sources, and media. Those documents mention scientists’ point of view, including quotes collected during interviews for newspapers or blogs. We conducted a thorough analysis of these documents to uncover the underlying principles behind the narrative CV as well as the issues it aims to address, including in real situations with the review of 7 experiments in various countries. As a result, we identified the following commonly reported features of the narrative CV: against the misuse of metrics, list and a narrow definition of impact and in favour of a broader range of research contributions, contextualisation, inclusivity and diversification.

Against the misuse of metrics

The most frequent argument in favour of the development of narrative CVs comes in opposition to the use of bibliometric indicators to evaluate researchers. They are criticised for favouring quantity over quality and for increasing the pressure on researchers to publish in high-impact journals, when other methods of publication would have a greater impact on society. Nevertheless, we can see from the pilot projects that the metrics have not been completely rejected. For instance, NWO (the Dutch Research Council) has banned the use of h-index or impact factor. However, it has authorized the use of metrics, provided that it is specified why the indicator is of interest in the context in question.

Against lists

Traditional CVs are criticized for favouring “shortcuts“, leading to “snap judgements” and disadvantaging, for example, researchers whose careers have been interrupted, leaving unexplained gaps in their CVs. But not all organisations that require a narrative CV have completely abandoned the practicality of presenting it in lists. The Swiss National Science Foundation has designed a CV template based on both lists and free text. The same goes for the University of Glasgow, which advocates a hybrid CV, which seems to be the format preferred by users.

Against a narrow definition of impact and in favour of a broader range of research contributions

For most advocates of the narrative CV, its main advantage is that it broadens the range of contributions for which researchers are recognised, i.e. by going beyond publications and taking into account other activities, “contributions to the real world”, such as projects that help local communities, participation in committees, teaching and mentoring.

In favour of contextualisation and selection

The narrative CV is a way of providing contextual elements to give “a much richer, more nuanced picture of an individual scholar’s contribution“, taking into account the specificities of the discipline, academic age and also personal circumstances. Some organisations advocate selecting the most significant publications, rather than listing them all, which gives evaluators a chance to have time to read them. However, abandoning the complete list of publications has met with a mixed reception from both applicants and assessors, as the Luxembourg National Research Fund found out during its pilot project. Some fear that they will only have an incomplete profile of the candidate and that the examiners will not have the information they need to verify what is stated in the narrative sections.

In favour of inclusivity and diversification

The narrative CV makes it possible to diversify the evaluation criteria and, for example, to value mentoring or participation in committees. Highlighting this type of activity works in favour of women, people from ethnic minority groups and other under-represented demographic groups, as it has been shown that these are areas in which they excel.

A return to the old format

Surprisingly, commentators pay little attention to the narrative aspect from a formal point of view, typically writing and using complete sentences, rather than short statements in the form of lists. Yet this requires an extra effort on the part of those who are not native speakers of the language in which they have to write the CV. And it’s an exercise that disadvantages those who don’t know how to “sell” themselves.

Even more surprisingly, what has been described as a revolution in the way people present their careers is in fact a return to a typical format from the 1950s-1960s (see this study on the CVs of German academics). Back then, the CV was a text that explained the candidate’s intellectual choices and highlighted certain aspects of their research, in particular by distinguishing important publications from others. In France, there is also the “analytical CV” required for applications to the position of Associate Professor.

In any case, whether this recent enthusiasm for the narrative CV is justified or not, it has to be said that the very fact of proposing and promoting a new term makes it possible to open up the debate, raise awareness and challenge evaluators (and candidates themselves, potential future evaluators) about the bad practices and biases that exist in the process of evaluating researchers. In the end, the narrative nature of the CV is just a pretext for arousing interest and working towards the adoption of better practices.

By the time we had completed our study, new terms such as contextual CV, substantiated CV, or evidence-based CV were already appearing, demonstrating that there is still a great deal of thought being given to the form of the document itself and its place in the evaluation process, and that the narrative feature is no longer the main driver.

This post draws on the authors’ paper, Promoting narrative CVs to improve research evaluation? A review of opinion pieces and experiments.

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Scott Baber
Scott Baber
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Manages incoming enquiries and advertising. Based in London and very sporty. Worked news and sports desks in local paper after graduating.

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