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Topic: Assessment in Maths. - Statement from the IMU
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Jerry P. Becker

Posts: 16,576
Registered: 12/3/04
Assessment in Maths. - Statement from the IMU
Posted: Dec 5, 2013 3:32 PM
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From the The Electronic IMU Newsletter
<>, IMU-Net 62: November
2013 -- A Bimonthly Email Newsletter from the
International Mathematical Union. Editor:
Mireille Chaleyat-Maurel, University Paris
Descartes, Paris, France

As students we are taught the importance of
rigour and precise proofs in mathematics, and
those of us who are now teaching mathematics try
to transmit this to the next generation.
Providing detailed assessment of written work is
an important part of this process; this task can
be time consuming and requires considerable care
and attention, but it is a somewhat easier one in
mathematics than in most other sciences or in the
humanities, since an answer to a mathematical
question is more clearly either correct or not. I
have actually noticed that the fact that
evaluations were « fair » is frequently mentioned
when mathematicians remember what made them then
prefer mathematics to other subjects in high

This commitment to rigorous and fair assessment
resurfaces in various ways in academic life. For
example, mathematicians themselves prefer to be
the ones who make editorial decisions in our main
journals. This contrasts with some other
scientific disciplines whose major journals,
including Science and Nature, employ professional
editors rather than relying on the editorial
judgement of active scientists.

Interdisciplinary panels tasked with evaluating
the scientific output of individuals are a common
feature of today's academic world. Usually, if
not always, mathematicians who sit on such panels
have the impression that the evaluation criteria
come from a foreign planet. Arbitrarily defined
bibliometric indexes and impact factors often
seem to virtually automatically govern important
decisions, which, in many cases, decide
allocation of large sums of money. Furthermore,
the members of evaluating panels can have very
limited understanding (to say the least) of the
actual work that they are evaluating. All this
seems in total contradiction with the foundations
of our conception of science, and can indeed have
devastating direct repercussions on the science
produced (since meeting the criteria of these
artificial evaluation rules would become the main
goal to achieve, instead of the intrinsic quality
and originality of the research output).

While evaluation is in general a sensitive
subject and a difficult task (a complete
consensual guide on « how to evaluate » would
probably be impossible to produce), it is
important to remain firm on
the basic principles, particularly that it is
neither fair nor efficient to evaluate something
that one does not understand. It is therefore
essential that we continue to resist pressure
from governing bodies, universities and other
institutions that try to implement
semi-automatized evaluation procedures.

IMU plans to release soon a short statement
stressing these basic principles. I hope that
this will be a useful tool for all of us who have
to plead this cause.

Wendelin Werner
Member at large of the Executive Committee of IMU

Jerry P. Becker
Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction
Southern Illinois University
625 Wham Drive
Mail Code 4610
Carbondale, IL 62901-4610
Phone: (618) 453-4241 [O]
(618) 457-8903 [H]
Fax: (618) 453-4244

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