The company piloting the system that will replace the research assessment exercise has been bought by Thomson Reuters - one of the world's leading suppliers of data on research papers.
The acquisition of data-analysis firm Evidence Ltd by Thomson Reuters has raised questions about a potential conflict of interest because Evidence is helping to set up the research excellence framework (REF), which will replace the RAE.
Thomson Reuters owns the Web of Science (WoS) database, which could eventually supply research citations data to help judge research quality under the REF. A rival database, the Elsevier-owned Scopus database, is the other potential supplier.
Last year, Evidence was awarded the contract by the Higher Education Funding Council for England to run a pilot, using data from 22 universities to determine how citations should be used.
The pilot will "test the main sources of citation data and any requirements for cleaning the data before analysis" and "explore the use of both the WoS and Scopus".
Bahram Bekhradnia, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, warned of the "potential" for a conflict of interest.
"I don't think there will be a conflict of interest ... but the message to Hefce is that it will have to step very carefully," he said.
Jonathan Adams, director of Evidence, denied that there would be any conflict. He said the firm was developing different methods of constructing bibliometric indicators for the REF, which will be put to REF expert advisory groups, rather than "comparing the (citations) databases" to inform the decision about which one to use.
A Hefce spokesman said: "We have taken steps to ensure that there will not be a conflict of interest. We have agreed that work undertaken for us by Evidence will use the WoS data only ... we will conduct an in-house analysis to compare the databases ... taking independent external advice as we do this."
He added that any decisions on which database to use "will be subject to a rigorous procurement process".