Accepted paper:

Evidence for excellence? How ERC reviewers attribute (non-)excellence to researchers


Kay Felder (Technical University of Munich)
Ruth Müller (Technical University of Munich)

Paper short abstract:

We trace how reviewers for the ERC attribute excellence to researchers when they assess CVs and projects. By understanding peer-reviews as processes that construct rather than apply notions of quality, we investigate who comes to count as an excellent scientist as well as a good reviewer today.

Paper long abstract:

The European Research Council (ERC) is one of the most prestigious funding organizations in Europe. Obtaining an ERC grant has become a symbol of academic excellence that can have great significance for the career development of researchers. The ERC peer review is further often seen as a new 'gold standard' of organizing review processes and as a potential blueprint for (re-)organizing reviews in other funding bodies. At the same time, the ERC is also struggling with traditional issues inherent to peer-review, such as gender and nationality bias. Against this background, we explore how peer reviewers for ERC starting and consolidator grants make sense of and navigate the peer review processes of the ERC. Based on qualitative interviews with reviewers, we trace how they attribute excellence or non-excellence to specific researchers, their proposals and their academic CVs. Our approach is grounded in an understanding of peer reviews as social processes that construct rather than apply notions of excellence and in which reviewers need to negotiate multiple, possibly contradicting understandings of worth individually and in the complex social space of the peer review panel. Peer review thus becomes an arena in which their own identities as reviewers and those of the applicants are continuously under construction. What counts as an excellent CV or project is intimately entangled with questions of what counts as good peer reviewing and how it can be performed, and with larger questions concerned with the politics and ethics of competitive research funding.

panel F03
Scientists - agents under construction