REF may distort journal choices

Concern as researcher is 'steered away' from a specialist publication. Hannah Fearn reports

May 7, 2009

Fears that the forthcoming research excellence framework has started to erode academic freedom were raised this week, as one researcher revealed he had been discouraged from publishing his work in the journal of his choice.

The REF will replace the research assessment exercise in judging the quality of academics' research and in determining the allocation of more than £1.9 billion in funding. But instead of using peer review to judge the work, it will primarily use numerical indicators, such as the number of times an academic's published work is cited by other scholars.

This week, Ralph Catts, a senior research fellow at the University of Stirling's Institute of Education, said he had been "steered away" from publishing in his preferred journal, the Scottish Education Review, because it does not have a high citation rate.

Dr Catts said his university had advised all staff to rethink where they publish their work.

In a paper circulated to staff, Ian Simpson, Stirling's deputy principal for research and knowledge transfer, said: "Think carefully about where you publish your research: journal quality and impact factor influence the thinking of panels; and clearly if you get your paper into the journals with the highest global impact, citations appear with the hallmark of international excellence."

But Dr Catts said if he published in one of the largest and most influential journals for his discipline, such as the British Journal of Education Studies, his research would not reach local practitioners. "As a person who is primarily concerned with influencing practice and policy through research, I know that publishing and communicating in the sort of journals and forums that I do has an impact."

Dr Catts said it was an unintended consequence of the new REF system, and was quick to defend his university.

"The people making this suggestion are concerned for the wellbeing of our institution and our reputation as researchers. I'm sure the University of Stirling is not untypical here. It is of critical importance that each university strives to maintain a high standard of recognition for the quality of its research, and we have to prepare for the REF now, especially if the assessment is by citations because citations build up over time."

Tony Axon, research officer at the University and College Union, Scotland, said the issue of bibliometrics represented a threat to academic freedom, and it also raised bigger questions for the Scottish academy and smaller Scottish journals.

"It's obviously an issue for Scotland in particular because it's discriminating against Scotland-only publications," he said.

Mark Priestley, editor of the Scottish Education Review, said "there is pressure on academics across the sector to publish in journals that have a high citation rate and the local and specialised journals do not have that advantage". But he added that he did not fear for the future of his own journal.

Professor Simpson said: "To connect our research with practitioners and policymakers, who drive the quality of our research, we must consider different forms of outlet and engagement: not just academic journals but practitioner magazines, training workshops, seminars and maybe some of our degrees and part-time courses."

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