REF: 15% of academics in survey ‘made to change research focus’

Nearly one in five respondents to four-campus study said they feared role change if they underperformed

June 24, 2019
Source: Alamy
Detour REF expectations may shape ‘a sizeable portion of research’

A significant minority of UK academics who responded to a survey reported having been threatened with a change of role or contractual status if they performed unsatisfactorily on the research excellence framework, or said they had been asked to change their work’s focus to better suit the assessment.

The Real-Time REF Review, a longitudinal pilot study commissioned by Research England to evaluate the impact of the exercise on academics, found that – on the whole – respondents’ views about the evaluation were not as extreme as is sometimes thought, and were best described as “moderately negative”. The study was based on survey responses from 598 academics across the universities of Cardiff, Lincoln, Sheffield and Sussex, as well as interviews with 21 managers involved in the REF across the four institutions.

However, recurring issues of performance management, game-playing and a perceived negative impact on researchers’ mental health were highlighted as continuing concerns.

Some 17.5 per cent of survey respondents said their department had indicated that they could expect their role to change if they failed to perform to the standard that managers wanted to achieve in the REF, and 10.3 per cent said they could expect their contract to change if they did not meet expectations.

After the decision that all academics with “significant responsibility for research” will be submitted to REF 2021 – a change from 2014, when managers could choose which employees to enter – there has been significant anxiety that staff who fall short of expectations for research output will be moved on to teaching-only contracts.

Meanwhile, 15.4 per cent of respondents reported having been asked to change the focus of their research to “accommodate” the REF.

“While this is a relatively small proportion of respondents, it still indicates that a sizeable portion of research content within the UK may be directly shaped through REF expectations,” the study’s authors write.

James Wilsdon, professor of research policy at the University of Sheffield and co-author of the pilot study, said the proportion of academics who had been asked to refocus their research was “low, but still something to be concerned about”, given that the purpose of the REF was to “measure and not interfere with research agendas”. “The tail is not meant to wag the dog,” he said.

While just under one in six respondents reported the use of two or more worrying management tactics in their department, the study’s authors note that “constructive motivational approaches” were being used “more frequently than pressuring motivational strategies”.

It was not possible to tell from the survey exactly how research was being influenced, but Professor Wilsdon said he imagined it was “likely to be the case that researchers are being pressured to submit work to higher impact journals rather than being told to change the trajectory of their work”.

Surveys for the study were taken between April and August 2018, when changes to the 2021 REF were being implemented in accordance with the 2016 Stern review – which made recommendations designed to reduce game-playing among institutions and to make the exercise less burdensome.

Steven Hill, director of research at Research England and chair of the REF 2021 steering group, said the findings gave “valuable understanding about the lived experiences of academics” that would be taken on board in the design of future assessments.

“There is much in this report that reassures, but also some evidence that we can improve processes…We also encourage higher education institutions to consider the report’s findings on good practice and the role it plays in supporting a positive research environment,” he said.


Print headline: REF pressures force academics to refocus work

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Reader's comments (10)

The tick shaped managerialist tail is wagging the poor proper academic dog in a box at a #UniversityNewYou
And it is time university staff and management practice were scrutinised in the classroom. Students pay for excellent teaching. Too frequently the student is told to go and find it out for themselves, this is professionally unacceptable. It is the member of staff marking the work, the member of staff with idiosyncrasy associated with often unfamiliar teaching methods found overseas. Staff who come from different teaching traditions have widely different views on what a good essay looks like and of course content, hence assessment requires excellent direction throughout. I cannot think of a more difficult and often impossible task to ask a student to do. It is then unsurprising that so many complaints occur.
A university education, in transforming an empty mind into an open and equiring one, should equip students to 'go and find it out for themselves' - that's the whole point. Students are no longer passive receipients of teaching, they should be becoming active learners, able to think and to learn for themselves. If they are unable to find stuff out for themselves, they would indeed have cause for complaint!
The amount of admin/mangement time that's going into REF is quite mind-blowing, but I have yet to get an answer to my question "How much is REF costing us, and what benefits do we receive for our participation?"
When an REF panel of existing senior staff assemble to judge the work submitted to them, they bring their own assumptions about what makes for good research and apply that. In this climate, the urge to conform to the perceived dominant model of good research will inevitably lead to adaptation and prioritisation of research objectives and methodologies. It is not immediately obvious that this interferes with academic freedom, or freedom of thought and speech, but in the long term it does, especially if it occurs at national level. If this is a bad outcome the REF needs to be abolished. Indeed I have never understood why universities should not be trusted to assess research internally through promotion procedures, that are subject to procedural quality control by periodic external reviews. This at least permits individual institutions to promote their own perceptions of what makes for good research and offers a better chance of free inquiry and intellectual diversity between institutions, an important aspect of academic freedom. It will also be a lot less expensive and more likely to be seen as legitimate by staff.
In schools of Business and Management, academics are routinely told they must publish in so-called "ABS List" of ranked journals, compiled by the Chartered Association of Business Schools, if their work is to be considered of required "quality". This is in direct contravention of the REF, which does not consider journal rankings but - at least claims – to rank individual contributions on the basis of the work itself. The idea that academics' work is pre-judged by colleagues or one or two blind reviewers, pre-empts the REF panel judgements, rendering the REF exercise as much a judgement on individual school's ability to "game the system" (including changing contracts of employees) and to predict what panels might consider "world class", as it is a judgement on the quality of work submitted. While the Stern Review rightly argued that all research staff should be submitted to the REF, what was not properly considered was what happens to staff whose work does not conform either to the (at least in some disciplines) increasingly narrow focus of fields of research or to the requirements of increasingly risk-averse journals.
There is absolutely no evidence to suggest that REF and its predecessors hace improved the quality of research in my own filed of History. It is a hugely bureaucratic, time consuming and philistine exercise requiring scholars to reserach and write to order. It is a gift for those who like having power over others. Originally UP TO 4 publications was required but this was quickly turned into a minimum of 4 by those overseeing the process inside universities. The failure of the profession to resist then led on to the requirement to show impact defined so as to delibertaelty exclude impact on the minds and capacities of students. The UCU needs to give the aim of abolishing the REF much higher priority.
Most published research in good journals are peer reviewed and are deemed by these reviewers as making significant original contributions to the body of knowledge in their respective fields. Yet the mode of citation counts for most published papers is close to '0'. This just shows how accurate peer reviewers are in forecasting and estimating the contribution of individual research papers - ratings by a small group of peer reviewers do not accurately reflect the ratings by the scientific community as a whole. Something for people who came up with the REF panels to think about...?
I'm involved in the New Zealand version of the REF exercise (PBRF). What an abomination these audits are, for all of the reasons listed above and more. There may have been some benefits in focusing NZ research in the first (and maybe second) round; now, the disadvantages vastly outweigh those benefits. The system promotes whole new levels of gaming and gatekeeping, reducing university research to highly-conformed, low-risk, box-checking prattle. It's compromising the reputation and integrity of the entire tertiary education sector, wreaking teaching in addition to research. I don't even know adjustments could rescue REF/PBRF---at the very least, it would require a monumental overhaul.
The REF is the most useless thing that was ever designed and foisted upon the academic community. It has encouraged game playing on a massive scale that has benefitted many rent seekers both in managerial positions and in academia. Look at the countries around the world whose universities are dominating research both theoretical and applied, that should tell anyone with half a brain cell that you don't need the REF to be making an impact for the benefit of humankind. In one discipline many new comers are lining up to attract academics from the US to somehow get their papers into particular journals. This is what the profession has been reduced to. Not to mention the fractional contract foreign academics who are being funded by the tax payers of this country! There should be more weight on the research envrionment and If you really want to know about the research environment. As part of the REF, among other things conduct an anonymous survey of the academics and other services directly involved in research. That will tell you more about a place than any massaged metric ever will


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