No penalty for Liverpool John Moores’ ‘systemic’ REF rules breach

‘Misinterpretation’ of Research Excellence Framework guidance on staff selection judged not to have materially benefited university

March 24, 2023
Source: istock

Liverpool John Moores University committed a “systemic” breach of rules on how staff were selected for submission to the latest Research Excellence Framework, an investigation has found.

In a summary detailing complaints it had received connected to the REF 2021, Research England stated that it had examined four complaints, of which two were upheld – both of which concerned Liverpool John Moores.

“One aspect of the upheld complaint was deemed to be “systemic”, in that it related to the operation of a central process by the institution, highlighting a misinterpretation of the REF guidance in applying the approved code of practice processes,” explained the report, published on 22 March.

“The other aspects that were upheld related to timeline or human error issues in relation to individual cases,” continued the report, which confirmed that financial penalties would not be levied and that “remedies” would be “forward-looking in nature, focused on reducing the risk of similar issues occurring in the future”.

In a statement provided to Times Higher Education, Keith George, pro vice-chancellor for research at Liverpool John Moores, said the university would “accept’, but was “disappointed by“ the outcome of the Research England inquiry.

The main breach concerned its code of practice for identifying staff with significant research responsibility – all of whom had to enter at least one output under new rules for REF 2021, explained Professor George.

Although the code of practice was communicated across the university, and formally endorsed by Research England in 2019, a Research England investigation – triggered by two complaints to the funding council from staff excluded from being submitted to the REF – found “the process used for staff selection drew directly upon output quality and volume, which was a departure from the national REF 2021 guidance,” explained Professor George.

In addition, the panel also found the timescales for appealing against the university’s decision not to include them or their outputs in the 2021 REF, as documented in its code of practice, were not followed or communicated effectively.

However, Professor George said that the university had “supplied details regarding the significant contextual challenge of undertaking the appeal process during a pandemic and that we completed appeals in a time frame that did not disadvantage staff”.

A further breach relating to a data accuracy issue that was investigated only related to one individual and one data point, added Professor George, who said the “panel noted that the specific data item was identified and updated within the REF cycle and that the breach would not have had a material impact on the [selection] decision process”.

Liverpool John Moores was ranked 82nd in last year’s REF according to grade point average for submitted outputs, down from 62nd place in 2014, with nearly three-quarters of its research (73 per cent) classified as 3* or 4*, up from 66 per cent in 2014. It performed strongly in physics, where it ranked 17th nationally, just a place behind the University of Liverpool; 35th for engineering and joint 36th for English.

Professor George said that the university had engaged fully in the 2021 REF process and attempted to “provide a comprehensive reflection of the high-quality research and knowledge exchange occurring across the university”.

He added that the “partially upheld” outcome of the REF Complaints Investigation will “have no retrospective impact on [the university’s] REF 2021 outcomes and or the [staff selection] outcomes”.

“We will work with Research England in relation to the process and communications issues highlighted to us following their investigation as well as in the potential preparation of a code of practice for the next REF cycle,” said Professor George, adding that “Research England understands the challenging issues associated with [staff selection for the REF], that they did ‘sign off’ our code of practice and will also learn from this process.”

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