Narrative CVs: a new challenge and research agenda

Narrative CVs: a new challenge and research agenda

Narrative CVs allow researchers to offer contextual accounts of their career. Ideally, they bring about more inclusive forms of research evaluation. In this collective blog post, we report on a 5-day workshop organized to reflect on narrative CVs and the many questions and opportunities they raise.

Most researchers will only think of their Curriculum Vitae (CV) when an application deadline is nearing. Yet a recent wave of initiatives to introduce so-called narrative CV formats by research funding bodies and universities across Europe have created debate about the affordances of an otherwise taken-for-granted bureaucratic genre. Narrative CVs are meant to tackle a widely perceived problem in relation to the use of traditional CV formats in research evaluation, namely an overemphasis on publication- and funding-centric quality criteria, and indicators such as the h-index, lifetime citation counts, or journal impact factors. There are concerns that such information is used to reduce complex comparative assessments in peer review to simple quantitative tallying, and many fear that this will undermine true innovation and openness of academic career systems. When recognition and reward are too narrowly conceived and based on quantitative tallying, broad swathes of academic workers end up feeling undervalued or not able to play to their strengths, which in turn means waste of talent, a less robust/diverse academic system, and persistent inequalities and hierarchies.

Visual CV, created by Mollie Etheridge.

Narrative CVs instead supplement traditional types of biographical information with narrative elements through which researchers can tell more contextual stories about their background/ career/ career motivation. Ideally, narrative CVs can help diversify criteria of success and achievement in research, thereby also diversifying the scientific workforce and creating more openness for “irregular” career trajectories.

Against the backdrop of these debates, we organized a 5-day workshop at the Lorentz Center in Leiden in December 2022 to bring together different academic stakeholders (including researchers, funders, policy makers, and administrators) to reflect on these and other new developments in CV territory. In this post we share some of our main insights. Urgent short-term goals include the need for getting a better sense of the extent to which narrative CVs can be effective in addressing the above-mentioned issues, and which practical conditions must be met for them to achieve their potential. In the medium- to long run, we should ensure that current narrative CV formats are part of a coordinated broader strategy to foster inclusive practices in research evaluation.

Historical convergence vs a new diversity of CV formats

Narrative CV formats can be seen as merely the latest development in the evolution of the genre. Research on the morphology of CVs has for example shown that in the humanities in Germany, a narrative format has been gradually replaced by a tabular format during the second half of the 20th century. More research would be needed to substantiate how representative these findings are for CV practices in other fields and countries. Yet overall, we can safely assume that CV formats have tended to converge in recent decades, following a relatively universal structure based on a range of categories of achievements.

The standardization of formats is in many ways productive. For example, it has made it possible to create overarching digital infrastructures for creating and handling CVs that can also then be reused for specific application purposes. During the workshop, we organized an open source data mining session that drew on the ORCID database, which contains a wealth of biographical profiles by researchers that can be used to interrogate empirical questions about academic career systems and academic dynamics. At the same time, it is exactly the uniformity of CV formats that current narrative CV initiatives and other critical observers of research evaluation systems take issue with, since it exerts a form of normalizing power on researchers that ultimately urges them to develop their careers around a rather narrow range of categories of achievement.

Visual CV, created by Sarah de Rijcke.

The narrative CV templates recently introduced by funders and universities in turn are characterized by a diversity in structure and format. At the workshop, we took a particularly close look at CV formats used by organizations who were also represented at our event, which included the Luxembourg National Research Fund (FNR), the Swiss National Science Fund (SNSF), and the Research Council of the Netherlands (NWO). The formats of the Swiss, Luxembourg, and Dutch research councils all ask for some narrative of the trajectory and scientific accomplishments of a researcher. The Swiss format requires up to three shorter narratives, while the Luxembourg CV requires applicants to submit a personal statement and a personal profile. The format used by the Dutch research council in turn is tailored to different career stages, with applicants for more advanced funding programs being asked to include an account of their leadership expertise in the narrative. Even the very term narrative CV is not fully agreed-upon. Rather than creating a sharp distinction between narrative and non-narrative, most organizations adopting such formats aim for a hybrid document that combines more traditional list-based information with narrative elements. One could also argue that interpreting any kind of CV format always requires an effort at narrativization, so as to translate a list of achievements into a trajectory that makes sense to human evaluators. These points, as well as the current variety in novel CV formats, caution us not to think of narrative CV formats as a singular new paradigm replacing existing conventions. Nevertheless, we will in the following present some overarching questions that are pertinent to most if not all narrative CV formats.

Evaluative use of narrative CVs

A basic assumption that seems to underpin narrative CV initiatives is that changing the way information is presented to reviewers will also change evaluation practices such as the issues discussed in review panels. Yet this seems a rather strong supposition. If we think of peer review not simply as a mechanism for objectively comparing information about applicants but as a practice that is learned through socialization in academic communities, then we should assume that making use of the affordances of novel CV formats is not something that comes overnight. Instead, we should perhaps expect a gradual process in which researchers become familiar with the new format and make progressively more use of its features. Empirical investigation into this may be useful, e.g., how do panel members actually negotiate and interpret evaluative criteria when using narrative CV formats? Do such practices change over time? In the short term, detailed empirical studies that compare how review panels shortlist and select candidates when presented with narrative and traditional CVs would be desirable (see here for a pertinent ongoing research project carried out at Cambridge University).

There may also be inadvertent risks in broadening the biographical information that is given as input for reviewers. First, it may be that sociocultural biases have a higher chance of coming to the fore. Imagine a scenario where sharing personal details such as sexual orientation, age, ethnic origin or simply particular life choices predispose reviewers for or against the author of the CV. Relatedly, reviewers may be inclined to evaluate those stories that resemble their own more positively, a phenomenon often studied under the name of homophily. Both bias and its specific form of homophily risk undermining ongoing attempts to foster diversity, equity, and inclusion in academia. The potential effects of bias and homophily may potentially be mitigated by unconscious bias training, or by assuring reviewer panels are sufficiently diverse in terms of gender, ethnic origin, nationality and career stages. Again, empirical research on these questions would be desirable. Do bias and homophily occur less or more often when using narrative CVs? Are reviewers more likely to call each other out on bias and is unconscious bias training a suitable answer? Alternatively, can panels better deal with biases if they cultivate a practice making implicit biases explicit?

Visual CV, created by Annemijn Algra.

Crafting narratives

A whole other set of unresolved questions arise even before evaluation, namely in the practice of crafting a narrative. During the workshop, we adopted a very broad perspective on representing oneself as an academic, even experimenting with the use of AI-generated visualizations in CVs that resulted in a live exhibition hosted by artists Ruud Akse and Zwaan Ipema in the art space NP3 in Groningen (the images in this blog post have been created during that session). While narrative CV formats currently abstain from any visualization elements, they do create the possibility to frame academic work in ways that highlight different dimensions of contributions. For example, this potentially allows for focusing also on desirable but usually somewhat undervalued aspects like actively practicing Open Science, communication and engagement with society, teaching, or exerting leadership in innovative ways. And while narrative CVs focus on individual researchers, they principally allow for new ways of showing how individual researchers contribute to collaborative work – for example, by giving space to account for community-building work that does not lead to publications and would normally remain invisible. At the same time, the practice of crafting a narrative is also related to sociological power dynamics, for example to the command of cultural capital, which is unequally distributed across researchers in terms of demographic dimensions such as age and social origin. Crafting narratives after all requires much more tacit knowledge about "how to present yourself" than a standardized tabular format. In addition, crafting narratives may come easier for some personality types than others.

The prospect of writing a narrative also raises the question of how coherent the biographical account should be. Our workshop featured a group work session chaired by Catelijne Coopmans in which we took a critical look at academic career advice. Academic career advice resources often appear to help reproduce rather traditional assumptions about what it means to be a successful researcher. One of the takeaways was that the cost of conforming to perceived or real career requirements can be high, both to building viable livelihoods and to health and wellbeing. Many researchers still work under the assumption that the goal of doing academic research is to become a professor, while other career paths are perceived as a form of failure. In reality, “irregular” trajectories may not just lead to more professional fulfillment on the side of the researcher, but may also have unexpected benefits for society (e.g., when academics engage or contribute to industry, social organizations, or government). The narrative CV in principle allows for showcasing diverse trajectories through academic research, for example in the sense of creating room to document experience working in other fields, professions, or experimenting with novel methods.

A final important concern is of course the time required to craft and evaluate narratives, which will often be significant. One way of reducing this work is to aim for a degree of harmonization of formats across organizations. Led by the Royal Society, efforts to achieve this are already underway in the UK. A related risk is that narrative CVs could turn into a new business opportunity for hired consultants, specialized in crafting catchy narratives. The attempt to “optimize” narrative CVs for particular funding opportunities through such professional support would seem to undermine the intention of using new formats to increase the informational value of CVs, and of course it would raise questions about who has or does not have access to the necessary resources for such support. Time will tell how researchers will adapt to narrative CV formats, and it may be that a critical assessment or change of direction will be required in a few years’ time.

Visual CV, created by Björn Hammarfelt.

A holistic perspective is needed

As this reflection on some of the key themes that came up during the workshop shows, there are lots of opportunities but also uncertainties related to the recent wave of narrative CV initiatives. What is perhaps most interesting about it is that the current moment stimulates reflection on practices of research assessment that are usually taken for granted. We might say that experiments with novel CV formats function as a sort of sociological breaching experiment, where the fundamentals of our conventional mechanisms for distributing science funding and academic hiring are put up for discussion. The breadth of the questions we raise in this short essay in any case prompts us to avoid thinking of the introduction of new CV formats as a panacea. CV formats are just one element - albeit a particularly important one - in a broader set of practices of research assessment. Addressing the foundational problems that narrative CV formats are meant to solve will require an empirically and conceptually well-understood view of the self-reproduction of the scientific career system - both in terms of how researchers plan their careers and present themselves strategically for assessment purposes, and in terms of the practical functioning of research evaluation, as well as the science system as a whole.

The authors of this blog post: Wolfgang Kaltenbrunner, Tamarinde Haven, Annemijn Algra, Ruud Akse, Francesca Arici, Zsuzsa Bakk, Justyna Bandola, Tung Tung Chan, Rodrigo Costas Comesana, Catelijne Coopmans, Alex Csiszar, Carole de Bordes, Jonathan Dudek, Mollie Etheridge, Kasper Gossink-Melenhorst, Julian Hamann, Björn Hammarfelt, Markus Hoffmann, Zwaan Ipema, Sarah de Rijcke, Alex Rushforth, Sean Sapcariu, Liz Simmonds, Michaela Strinzel, Clifford Tatum, Inge van der Weijden, & Paul Wouters.

Header image by Mike Erskine on Unsplash.


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