skip to content

International Development Research @ Cambridge


Tunnel vision

The limitations of dominant research-evaluation approaches are well known. Peer review is by definition an opinion. Ways of measuring citations — both scholarly and social — tell us about the popularity of published research. They don’t speak directly to its rigour, originality or usefulness. Such metrics tell us little or nothing about how to improve science and its stewardship. This is a challenge for researchers the world over.

The challenge is compounded for researchers in countries in the global south. For instance, the pressure to publish in high-impact journals is a steeper barrier because those journals are predominantly in English and biased towards publishing data from the United States and Western Europe. With the exception of an emerging body of Chinese journals, local-language publications are broadly deemed lower tier — even those published in European-origin languages such as Spanish, Portuguese or French.

The metrics problem is further amplified for researchers who work on local challenges. [...] Does the current evaluation approach scrutinize and give equal recognition to the local researcher who focuses on specifics and the researcher who generalizes from afar? Does the current approach acknowledge that incentives are different for local and foreign researchers, and that those incentives affect research decisions? Are we adequately measuring and rewarding research that is locally grounded and globally relevant? In our view, the answer to all of these questions is no.

From no to yes

With the support and leadership of partners across the global south, the IDRC decided to try something different. The result is a practical tool that we call Research Quality Plus (RQ+).

The tool recognizes that scientific merit is necessary, but not sufficient. It acknowledges the crucial role of stakeholders and users in determining whether research is salient and legitimate. It focuses attention on how well scientists position their research for use, given the mounting understanding that uptake and influence begins during the research process, not only afterwards.

We think that the approach has merit beyond the development context. We hope that it can be tailored, tested and improved in a variety of disciplines and contexts, to suit the needs of other evaluators — funders such as ourselves, but also governments, think tanks, journals and universities, among others.

RQ+ has three tenets:

  • Identify contextual factors. 
  • Articulate dimensions of quality. 
  • Use rubrics and evidence. 

Three myths busted...

  • Southern-only research is high quality.
  • Capacity strengthening and excellence go hand in hand.
  • Research can be both rigorous and useful.


This finding builds the case for investing in scientific integrity, in even the most applied and translational programmes.

To read the full article by J. Lebel and R McLean published on 4th July 2018, please visit the Nature website.


Welcome to Cambridge Global Challenges

Cambridge Global Challenges is the Strategic Research Initiative (SRI) of the University of Cambridge that aims to enhance the contribution of its research towards addressing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030, with a particular focus on the poorest half of the world’s population.


Contribute to Cambridge's response to COVID-19 in developing countries

Join working groups that invite your collaboration, create a new working group and learn about available funding opportunities here.


Join the Strategic Research Initiative

Register to Cambridge Global Challenges and to the SRI's mailing list here.


Learn about the support we provide 

Information on how Cambridge Global Challenges can support your research is shared here.


Contact us

Programme Manager (Dr Sara Serradas Duarte):​.