Changing the narrative: considering common principles for the use of narrative CVs in grant evaluation

Narrative CVs have become a potential avenue to recognize the broad range of a researcher’s scholarly contributions. They can be used as a tool to move toward a “quality over quantity” mindset in career evaluation, help reduce the emphasis on journal-based indicators, and better accommodate non-linear research career paths. To examine the merits and drawbacks of narrative CVs, DORA and the Funding Organisations for Gender Equality Community of Practice (FORGEN CoP) hosted a joint workshop in September 2021 for research funders. Based on the discussion from this initial workshop, a short report was released in December 2021 that summarized the key takeaways and recommended actions on the adoption of narrative CVs for grant evaluation. A key recommended action of the report was to create a shared definition of what a narrative CV is and to align on what objectives it hopes to achieve.

With this in mind, the December DORA funder discussion was dedicated to understanding the goals of using narrative CVs for grant evaluation, such as creating space for researchers to demonstrate broader contributions to research and documenting different talents. During the meeting, participants brainstormed on a range of topics: what a shared definition of a narrative CV might look like, objectives for its use in grant evaluation, and the value of a shared approach to monitor its effectiveness.

Toward a shared definition

Over the course of the discussion it became clear that more work is needed to develop a common narrative CV definition that accounts for differences across organizations and funding opportunities. One of the key challenges to developing a common definition was the idea that different organizations might have different understandings about the potential value that using narrative CVs might add to their assessment processes. Importantly, organizations may have distinct visions for where and how to use narrative CVs in their assessment processes. Participants agreed that a definition should be sufficiently flexible to adapt to various local contexts and cater to funders’ diverse needs and goals.

While considering how to address the challenges of creating a shared definition, one participant suggested the need to disentangle three key elements: what is a narrative CV, how might it be used, and how might it be implemented. Addressing the first element could include the creation of a flexible shared definition. From there, funders could address the second element and identify the expectations for use (e.g., what they expect a narrative CV to tell them that a bulleted CV cannot for a specific funding opportunity). Addressing the final element, implementation, could look like creating a practical and concrete plan to incorporate a narrative CV into their practices.

Because there are many types of narrative CV formats, participants also considered whether the conversation should be limited to formats that are completely narrative-based, such as the Resume for Researchers, or include hybrid-style CVs that feature “narrative elements.” Again, participants highlighted that building such flexibility into a shared definition could help address some of the challenges outlined above.

Brainstorming common objectives

To help build a foundation for effective use, participants were also asked to consider the objectives of a narrative CV. One participant noted that the use of narrative CVs might need to be dependent on the type of funding opportunity. An important foundational consideration might be “what is the most appropriate tool to achieve the goals of a specific funding opportunity.”

During this discussion, it was proposed that the general purpose of a CV is to document an individual’s professional trajectory. Some participants considered that a completely narrative CV may not offer a clear career timeline. One participant stressed that the goal of using alternative methods like narrative CVs for grant evaluation is ultimately to fund better research. Others added that another common objective of a narrative CV would be to allow applicants to provide evidence of a wider range of contributions, and give applicants the ability to explain why certain achievements are relevant to a specific proposal. We also heard that the power of using narrative CVs in grant evaluation lies in the idea that they can minimize the role journal prestige plays in the assessment of a candidate’s profile.

Finally, some participants expressed concern that a common misconception of narrative CVs is that they can be burdensome to create and review, and do not convey the same scientific rigor as quantitative indicators. During this discussion, other participants highlighted the importance of standardization as a mechanism to reduce the burden on applicants and reviewers. These discussions highlight the value of clear communication and training to ensure that both users and reviewers of narrative CVs understand what they are, how to create them, and how they should be used. To address this challenge, a recent example of an initiative to inform approaches to the use of narrative CVs is the UK Research and Innovation Joint Funders Group Résumé Library resources.

Value of collaboration to monitor effectiveness

There was strong consensus from the group that, where relevant, a collaborative approach to monitoring effectiveness would be valuable for funding organizations. For such an approach to work, it is important to take into consideration whether funders are using narrative CVs for grant evaluation in the same way. Building on that point, more than one type of investigation would be needed to accommodate the different uses of narrative CVs in varied types of funding opportunities.

There was also interest in collecting data across organizations with the aim of creating a longitudinal dataset on narrative CV use, which could help funders learn from the compound effect created by implementation across organizations. This dataset could include intra- or interorganizational qualitative and quantitative studies to monitor the use and effectiveness of narrative CVs.

Final takeaways

There is still work to be done to align on a shared definition, common objectives, and parameters for monitoring the effectiveness of narrative CVs. However, the discussions on this call demonstrated that interest is building in using narrative CVs as a qualitative method for research assessment, at least in part due to their potential to support a research culture that emphasizes meaningful research achievements over the use of flawed proxy measures of quality. Moving forward, fostering open and deep discussions with the community about narrative CVs and their implementation will be a key step toward the iterative development and use of narrative CVs as a tool for responsible research assessment.

DORA’s funder discussion group is a community of practice that meets virtually every quarter to discuss policies and topics related to fair and responsible research assessment. If you are a public or private funder of research interested in joining the group, please reach out to DORA’s Program Director, Anna Hatch ([email protected]). Organizations do not have to be a signatory of DORA to participate.

Amanda Akemi is DORA’s Policy Intern

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