Picking better choices than pick lists

2015-03-13

The grant writing season is upon us in Sweden. Although VR has decided not to require researchers to use their new Prisma system to build their CV automatically for this year’s open call because of complaints about its usability, I decided to check it out. The thing that struck me most was the reliance on lists.

I worked for many years in software design and user interfaces. I know why pick lists are desirable. The most important reason is standardisation. If you want to sort records or run statistics on a particular text field, it is always best if there are set choices. But if that’s not the case, if a field is collecting textual information that will not be queried as a standardised field, there’s no reason not to have it as an open text field. This is a vital distinction when designing software interfaces that are usable and appropriate.

When you present your prior and current employment on your CV, you always include your position title. In the Employments section of Prisma, you also put in a position title, but it comes from a pick list (also sometimes called a dropdown list). The list has educational titles (Professor, Senior lecturer, Assistant professor) and research titles (Researcher, Research assistant, Postdoctoral fellow, and PhD student). Everything else from Dean of a university to mailroom clerk is Other – and there is no text field to specify what that Other position was!

By relegating all positions outside of their list to Other, VR codifies particular ideas of what “counts” as doing research and the qualifications of doing research and running projects. For example, my title when I moved to Sweden was Project Coordinator. Half of my time was earmarked for coordinating a large multi-disciplinary project, including co-authoring papers, teaching a PhD course, and supervising students, and half of my time was for my own individual research contribution to the project. Selecting Other doesn’t tell the reviewer of my CV for a grant anything about the type of position I had.

The more shocking thing is that the exact same list is available even if you choose a non-university employer. Once again there is no field for you to enter another title. I realized long ago that many academics, especially in the humanities, do not consider business experience when they judge your background and qualifications. Yet business experience may be directly relevant to your research qualifications: being a project manager or trainer is directly relevant to running a good project and working as a field scientist or design engineer trains someone for doing research in the field or lab. The Prisma pick list reifies the perceived superiority of research titles over business ones.

Closed lists only make sense if the designer can be sure that they have captured all the legitimate possibilities. The position pick list is an example of a failure to do this. The Docent field is another one. Here the user has to pick the field that they have earned a Swedish “docent” qualification in. There is a set pick list, but in reality the “docent” title is determined by the researcher’s expertise and thus may not be on the list. My husband, for example, has earned a docent title in teknik- och miljöhistoria, but that is not on the pick list.

The whole idea of limiting these fields to a set list shows a very conservative mindset. The VR attempt to place everything into set lists and minimize room for individuality shows that they fail to undertand the university system in practice. University research is messy. Position titles and research fields are so various that it is not possible to limit data to a pick list. My suggestion is that Prisma and the thinking behind it within VR is modified to reflect that (1) qualifications happen outside the standard university titles as well as within them and (2) research fields are ever-evolving and new cutting-edge disciplines need to be encouraged not stifled.

(13-03-2015 11:00: Post changed to clarify that it is the Prisma CV-building function that is not being required. Prisma itself is the larger system and is being required for the submittal process.)

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