Funding chiefs are urging universities to "revisit" the issue of how academics are selected for submission to the research excellence framework.
The funding councils' Assessment Framework and Guidance on Submissions for the 2014 REF, published today, contains a long section about universities' obligations under equality legislation, including the Equality Act 2010.
It also emphasises that researchers in every unit of assessment may submit fewer than the standard four research outputs in certain circumstances.
These include having had leave of absence due to illness or maternity during the census period, which will run from 1 January 2008 to 31 December 2013 for research outputs and to 31 July 2013 for the "impact" and "environment" elements of the exercise, which will count for 20 and 15 per cent respectively.
The Higher Education Funding Council for England, which manages the REF on behalf of all the UK funding councils, hopes that the moves to strengthen its measures to "promote equality and diversity in research careers", will redress concerns about lower rates of submission for eligible female, black and disabled staff in the 2008 research assessment exercise.
The REF is replacing the RAE as the mechanism for distributing quality-related research funding.
David Sweeney, Hefce's director of research, innovation and skills, said that the issue of selection for submission could be further sharpened in the 2014 exercise if universities decided to submit significantly fewer academics than they had to the 2008 RAE on the expectation, which he declined to confirm, that Hefce would confine funding to three-star (internationally excellent) and four-star (world-leading) research.
"If you submit people and they don't do well, it hits a university's reputation, so most want to get as high a score as possible while not losing money," he said.
"Given the assumption that in England we won't fund two-star research, there are quite a lot of staff whose work may not (attract funding), so the university's reputational mark would be higher if they were omitted."
Although Mr Sweeney doubted that omission from the REF would adversely affect academics' promotion prospects, he said Hefce was asking universities to "revisit" the issue of who was selected because the public nature of the process meant that non-submission could be "painful" for individuals.
The submissions guidance also emphasises consistency across disciplines.
Criteria for how submissions will be handled - which will be put out for consultation later this month - will be drawn up at the level of main panels rather than subpanels, the number of which has been reduced from 15 to four.
"We haven't solved all the issues raised last time, but there is no area where we haven't managed to achieve a decent bit of progress and come to a reasonable consensus position," Mr Sweeney said.