Burden of research excellence framework ‘outweighs the benefits’

Some scholars report that evaluation deters them from pursuing novel scholarship

十一月 26, 2021
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Many UK academics believe that the research excellence framework has deterred them from pursuing novel or “authentic” scholarship, according to a major survey.

In a survey of nearly 2,000 scholars conducted for a major assessment of the REF, commissioned by Research England, scholars were significantly more likely to say that it had decreased the novelty of their research over the past four years than increased it, suggesting that the need to produce highly regarded “outcomes” made academics less likely to pursue blue-sky research with unpredictable results.

The same applied for the authenticity of research – work reflecting the intellectual interests of academics or the wider scholarly community – although in both cases respondents were most likely to say that the REF had had neither a negative nor a positive impact.

Respondents also indicated that the REF had encouraged them to adopt open research practices and to increase the quantity of their research output. They said that it had also helped to foster interdisciplinary research and research of public relevance.

Asked how the REF had affected their broader research community over the past four years, academics gave similar responses, but were most likely to say that it had led to increased “game playing” in research – such as staff recruitment or embellishment of impact with an eye on the exercise – with more than three-quarters of respondents feeling this way.

The report, produced by the not-for-profit research organisation Rand Europe, says the results highlight “a disconnect between the perceived impact [of the REF] on others and the real influence individuals perceive on themselves”.

It adds that respondents were broadly positive about changes made to the REF for the 2021 exercise, for example, requiring all research-active staff to be submitted.

However, the report continues, the majority of respondents “reported that the detrimental qualities of the REF are negative for them and that, overall, the REF has a negative influence on UK researchers”.

Respondents from research-intensive universities and arts and humanities disciplines felt most strongly about the negative influence of the REF.

“The big driver of negative attitudes is the burden of the exercise, and specifically that the burden is perceived to outweigh the benefits,” the report says, adding that there was a “lack of understanding among academics…of what the REF is trying to achieve”.

However, the report adds, the “negative perceptions of the REF may also in part be driven by how institutions and individual academics interpret the REF rules and the processes institutions put in place to implement these rules. Throughout our focus groups, we found a lot of misconceptions of what was and was not allowed in the REF, as well as ‘myths’ through which academics misinterpret the REF and its rules.”

The results of the 2021 REF are due to be published in May 2022. The results of the Rand Europe report – also known as “The Real-Time REF Review” – will be used shape future rounds of the exercise.




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Reader's comments (4)

Putting a numeric value on something doesn't make it automatically valid but it does give people the *impression* that it is more 'objective'.
There was a study done a number of years ago looking at the AU/NZ equivalent of the REF. What it found was that the exercise is good as a way of forcing universities to make choices amongst which faculty to keep and which to "move along" and was instrumental in cleaning house of load of old academics for some fresh blood. However, once it did that, its value was increasingly marginal. It is important to understand that places have things like the REF because they do not have other levers with which to clear out the house of underperforming academics (many of which view themselves as always 'performing' but that is not the reality when one looks at that 'performance'). US universities have a much more competitive, diversified, decentralized model and hence the labour market works better to keep the supply side under control while the demand for what universities produce works on the demand side. Absent real competition, bureaucrats create bureaucracies, which, as we know, are very good at self perpetuating and surviving long past their use by date.
You mean there ARE benefits to the REF? It seems to me that a lot of time, effort & expense go into producing REF submissions with no real benefit to institutions or researchers... certainly not sufficient to justify the expediture of effort, cash & time.
Where is the data that can prove that there has been a benefit? Has anyone proved that there has been a positive causal impact of REF on the performance of UK universities?