REF 2028: don’t focus only on superstar scholars, warn funders

Universities could be marked down on research culture if a handful of researchers dominate submissions, says research assessment officials

July 5, 2023
Source: istock

Universities should think carefully about exploiting new rules that will allow star researchers to submit as many outputs as they wish to the next Research Excellence Framework (REF), a senior Research England official has warned.

Under the new rules for REF 2028, announced last month, researchers will no longer be restricted to submitting a maximum of five research outputs as part of a shake-up that will also see the removal of the REF 2021 policy that required all research-active staff to enter at least one output over the seven-year assessment cycle.

Those changes to decouple individuals and outputs are designed to encourage a focus on team-based submissions, and remove the need for “special circumstance” explanations of why researchers did not submit any outputs, but they have raised concerns that resources might become more focused on prolific leading researchers likely to produce 4* research, rather than encouraging excellence across a broader pool of researchers.

Speaking at an event at UCL, jointly organised with the Foundation for Science and Technology and the Research on Research Institute, Steven Hill, director of research at Research England, which runs the REF on behalf of all UK research funders, said he acknowledged the risks inherent in removing the individual cap on REF outputs but noted that institutions could be marked down in other scores if they were not seen to support researchers more widely.

“Universities who choose to optimise submissions by focusing resources on certain researchers, or focus on one or two [researchers] – that is demonstrably not a good research culture,” said Dr Hill on 5 July.

The research culture element of REF 2028 – the weighting of which has been increased to 25 per cent, up from 15 per cent – would allow panels to assess how institutions are “supporting and promoting researchers in terms of early-career researchers” and the “distribution of authors”, he continued, adding that this provision would “lead to much more holistic submissions”.

Dame Jessica Corner, executive chair of Research England, said the changes on output rules were designed to create a “shift in focus from the individual to the institution and what it is nurturing”.

Some attendees raised questions about the “huge EDI [equality, diversity and inclusion] implications” of the policy, with one claiming the rule had the potential to create “fractional FTE superstars” who would be able to command huge salaries by offering their multiple 4* papers to institutions seeking to improve their standing.

Another wondered if the decoupling of outputs would fuel a “culture of superstars getting support at the expense of other researchers”, and another questioned whether the “guardrails via ‘environment’ are strong enough to mitigate against the risk of game playing in the output return”.

“We have a commitment to equality and diversity,” said one anonymous question, “yet allowing some individuals unlimited submissions and others to be excluded is going backwards.”

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Reader's comments (1)

Someone needs to take a double look at the 20% contract academics who are primarily employed by institutions outside the UK and look carefully at their relationship with the UK universities returning them to the REF.