DIUS abandons plans for different REF systems to judge sciences and arts

Research in all subjects will be assessed using both peer review and metrics, writes Zoe Corbyn

April 24, 2008

Research quality in all disciplines will be judged using a combination of "statistical indicators" and peer review under the system to replace the research assessment exercise.

In a U-turn announced this week, ministers have abandoned plans to use one system to judge research in the sciences and another in the arts, humanities and social sciences in the forthcoming research excellence framework.

The Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills also confirmed, as Times Higher Education reported earlier this month, that the timetable for designing the new framework will be extended by a year in order to develop the "more flexible" approach.

The REF, which replaces the RAE in determining the allocation of more than a billion pounds of research funding each year, will come fully into effect by 2014.

Under plans for the REF detailed previously, arts, humanities and social science subjects were to be judged by "light-touch peer review", while the quality of research in science subjects would be judged by metrics such as research income, postgraduate student numbers and the number of times an academic's published work is cited by other scholars.

In addition to introducing the use of metrics to assess the arts and humanities, the changes also reintroduce a form of peer review to judge sciences two years after it was announced that such review would be scrapped.

"A new metrics-based assessment framework will make greater use of statistical indicators, helping reduce the need for peer review," DIUS said in a statement.

"So for all subjects, the assessment will include metrics-based indicators, including bibliometric indicators of quality wherever appropriate, as well as input from expert panels. The balance of metrics and expert input will vary according to the subject group," it added.

On the exact role of the expert panels, a spokesman for the Higher Education Funding Council for England said more details would be released in due course. "Expert panels would inform the process in some cases including peer review," he said.

Bahram Bekhradnia, the director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, welcomed the revised plans. He said they were almost "unrecognisable" from the original concept, which proposed abandoning peer review altogether.

"What we now seem to have ... is peer review informed by metrics ... , which represents a natural evolution of the research assessment exercise."

Regarding the use of metrics in arts subjects, the British Academy said the devil would be in the detail.

"Metrics have to be a credible proxy for other forms of review, and the British Academy does not believe, for the majority of humanities and social science disciplines, that these exist yet," said Tim Brassell, the director of external relations.

The Royal Society said it remained unclear how far DIUS had recognised the need for peer review to play a central part, alongside metrics, in assessing scientific research.

"If the input of expert panels is a reflection of the ongoing importance of peer review, then (the) announcement could be good news," said Peter Cotgreave, the director of public affairs.

zoe.corbyn@tsleducation.com.

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