Weak affiliation rules raise fears over REF game-playing

Majority of respondents to survey worry loose affiliation criteria for Research Excellence Framework could open door to ‘buying in’ star talent

June 24, 2024
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Allowing staff who work for an institution as little as one day a week to be submitted to the Research Excellence Framework could incentivise the hiring of “REF-able” staff on part-time and short-term contracts, according to concerns raised by a UK sector consultation.

In a summary of responses to a consultation on the future of the REF, which was published on 24 June, it was revealed that most of the 260 respondents who gave their views between July and October 2023 voiced misgivings about plans to permit staff working at just 0.2 full-time equivalent (FTE) intensity, and for as little as six months prior to the REF census date, to submit outputs to the REF.

According to the consultation summary, a “majority [of respondents] considered that the proposed 0.2 FTE/six-month minimal contractual requirement would be an insufficient indicator of a demonstrable and substantive link”.

“Concerns were raised that the current proposals would allow HEIs to hire ‘REFable’ academics, for example those with a high quality near-to-publication portfolio, on short-term contracts, thereby allowing their submission, despite a debatable link between the HEI and output,” the report adds.

“There were some concerns raised that the continuation of REF 2021 portability rules, combined with the substantive link, could encourage the use of short-term contracts to ‘buy-in’ outputs,” the summary continues.

That issue of “buying in” outputs is likely to be more relevant in the next iteration of the research exercise, which is used to distribute about £2 billion a year in annual funding, given that the limit on how many outputs that each researcher can submit – which was five in 2021 – is to set to be removed.

At the same time, those deemed research-active will not need to submit any outputs for the seven-year REF window within a more team-based approach, although assessors will instead ask that unit submissions provide an average of 2.5 outputs per individual.

On this issue, “a minority expressed concern that the decoupling of outputs from individuals would allow submitting institutions to focus their submissions on the work of a small number of individuals”, explains the summary.

There are also concerns that “submissions that are concentrated on the outputs of ‘research stars’ could lead to the exclusion of others, in turn prioritising certain types of research and publication practice and putting undue pressure on ‘research stars’ to carry the performance of their department or institution in the REF exercise”, it adds.

“A small majority were concerned that decoupling would allow submitting institutions to exploit staff on teaching-only contracts, making use of their research without paying contracted hours for them to conduct the research,” the summary adds.

Catriona Firth, associate director of research environment for Research England and a member of the REF steering group, said the feedback collected represented “another crucial input into the development of REF 2029 policies”.

“I am heartened to see that the spirit of co-creation continues to be met with great enthusiasm, with 260 HEIs, sector bodies and individual researchers taking part from across the UK. Each of these views is valuable to us, and we are thankful to our research communities for their ongoing engagement, support, and constructive challenge.”


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