REF: how a one-man crusade got started

January 15, 2015

My initial reaction to the letter from some of my colleagues in the history department at Lancaster University was not to dignify it with a response. But on reflection, I believe its claims to be sufficiently inaccurate to warrant a reply (“REF: late crusaders and early adopters”, Letters, 8 January).

I was head of the history department from 2009 to 2012 and charged with improving its performance in the 2014 research excellence framework compared with the 2008 research assessment exercise. This I endeavoured to do to the best of my ability. The assertion that “no one in Lancaster University’s history department played a larger role than Sayer… in establishing the internal decision-making framework for the REF” is untrue because the framework was established at faculty level under the scrutiny of the university’s REF steering group and departments had very little leeway in designing selection procedures.

I had agreed, after a full discussion and vote in a department meeting, to appoint a “critical friend” to advise the department in our REF preparations, including selection of outputs, but at no point did I anticipate that friend playing the critical role in evaluation of outputs described in my article “Protest for a REFormation” (Features, 11 December).

It is also untrue that my criticisms of the REF began only after my resignation as head of department and when “people who were close to me” were excluded from Lancaster’s REF submission. Decisions on inclusion in the REF were taken only during the summer of 2013. I resigned as head on 14 June 2012.

Two weeks before I resigned, on 28 May 2012, I wrote to the history department director of research at Lancaster, expressing my growing misgivings about the REF.

My letter said: “As I see it, the outputs of those who have survived universities’ more or less random internal culls get to be evaluated by, in most cases, just one person who may or may not have expertise in the area but is certainly not required to. In this process, all conventional scholarly indicators of quality –standing and impact factors of journals, quality and reputation of publishers, number and range of citations, reviews of published books, etc. – are completely ignored…This matters because the criterion used by publishers and journals in seeking peer reviewers, unlike the REF panel, is precisely specialized knowledge of a field. Instead, we are asked to ‘trust the judgment’ of the panel, based not on its expertise but its general eminence. I think this process makes a mockery of scholarly values.”

My ability to criticise the REF publicly was seriously constrained while I remained head of department. It seems not to have occurred to my critics that among the reasons for my “sudden resignation” was to put myself in a position where I could express my views on the REF.

Finally, nowhere in my article did I attack individual colleagues’ integrity or suggest that they had acted less than honourably in executing their “thankless task”. My concern throughout (as in my book Rank Hypocrisies) has been with REF procedures, both nationally and within individual universities. I wish the same could be said for the signatories of the letter, whose purpose seems to have been to discredit me with ad hominem slurs while conspicuously failing to engage with a single argument put forward in my article.

Derek Sayer
Professor of cultural history
Lancaster University

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Reader's comments (1)

As an outsider observer, I welcome your response. It surprises me that colleagues in the same department resort to public letters to exchange differing views (I resorted to writing for the first time to the Times Higher Education when it became clear that managers at Queen Mary were unwilling to engage with different views; I haven't detected the similarities on this occasion) and that the tone of exchange remains sharp for no obvious reason. Another way of putting my comment is thus: what appears to be monstrous is the idea that the academic departments are not the ones deciding how to best present their work - this is done "at the faculty level", which often means by those figures who are actively destroying UK universities. I offer a refreshing text from an Argentinian colleague working in Mexico https://fanismissirlis.wordpress.com/2015/01/13/scientific-illiteracy/ and I pose the question: can the UK still make a clame of scientific literacy?

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