Covid-related exceptions from REF submission rules announced

Some staff whose work has been disrupted by pandemic can be excluded, and leeway on publication deadlines also introduced

July 31, 2020
Covid test
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UK universities have been told that they will not have to submit to the upcoming research excellence framework outputs by some academics whose work has been seriously disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic.

The country’s funding bodies confirmed that they were restarting the REF assessment process on 31 July after a four-month pause triggered by Covid-19, starting the countdown to the revised submission date of 31 March next year. Results are now expected to be published in April 2022, with the results informing decisions on research funding from the academic year 2022-23 onwards.

The funders also announced a slew of changes to the REF submission rules, designed to take account of the impact of the pandemic on researchers and universities.

Significantly, they introduced a Covid-related exception to the rule that was newly introduced for the 2021 evaluation and which requires all academics with “significant responsibility for research” to submit at least one output to the REF.

The funders said that staff members could be excluded if their outputs had been disrupted by ill health or caring responsibilities relating to Covid-19, other personal circumstances such as being furloughed or being a health expert who was diverted to frontline services, or external factors such as restricted access to research facilities – but only if their ability to produce outputs had already been limited earlier in the assessment period.

The funders said that the combined effect should be “similar” to the rules for existing exceptions, which cover staff who have had 46 months or more of absence between 2014 and 2020, or circumstances such as mental health issues “equivalent” to this period of absence, or two periods of family-related leave in the same time span.

This means that many of the staff likely to be covered by the new exception are likely to be early career researchers who have only been employed for some of the assessment period, or a researcher on a fractional contract.

The funders also said that they would allow for the submission of outputs that had not been published by the REF publication deadline of 31 December this year, so long as there was “clear evidence” that it should have been released by then and was delayed because of issues relating to Covid-19, such as staff circumstances or publisher delays.

“This provision does not apply to outputs that are not in the public domain due to delays to completing the research itself, unless there is clear evidence that the expected date of appearance in the public domain was within the publication period,” the guidance says.

Other changes include the submission of outputs that do not meet open access publication requirements if failure to do so has been caused by coronavirus and an extension of the assessment period for impact case studies to 31 December this year.

Universities will also be invited to submit a statement describing how their institution has responded to Covid-19 and its impact on research, which will be used to provide context for assessment sub-panels.

The funding bodies said that the revised rules had been informed by expert advice and consultation with the sector.

Steven Hill, director of research at Research England and chair of the REF steering group, said: “We know that universities have invested a lot in preparing submissions to date, and that in the context of the seven-year cycle, the disruption caused by Covid-19 has come at a late stage in this process.

“It is of great importance that this investment can be properly recognised, and research excellence identified and rewarded, in moving ahead to complete the assessment process. The outcomes of the REF will provide extremely valuable information on the achievements of UK research.”

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