REF: We need to push back against a system that has lost its way

 

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I am not against the assessment of academic research, in principle. Universities are institutions that receive public funding and there are good arguments for robust quality-checks of the business that goes on in them. However, the Research Excellence Framework — the current system by which university research is assessed, known by most of us ‘REF’ — has lost its mind.

As anyone who works in a university will know, rather than the twice-decade external audit of HE business that I imagine (hope) the framework was conceived as, REF has now become HE business. At most universities, whole layers of bureaucracy have been created — at a financial and human cost vastly outstripping the return of even the most stellar REF results — to game the system: annual, internal practice REFs where we are required to assess one another’s work in a project designed, surely, to create internal tensions; case-studies written to articulate the impact of projects that haven’t happened yet; research-plan monitoring to ensure we are all ‘REF compliant’; the implementation of complex IT systems where research can be stored, graded and recorded for easy REF access.

Meanwhile, academics are encouraged (read forced by the threat of career suicide if they resist) to produce outputs — not on the basis of the value of their research to the public, or their desire and readiness to express ideas to the world, but on the government-mandated requirement that every five or so years, academics have two, or four, or six (or whatever the Higher Education Funding Council for England, HEFCE — the quango currently in charge of this mess until UK Research and Innovation takes over in a few days time — decides they want us to produce) ‘world leading’ publications ready for scrutiny. Yes, you are expected to produce ‘world leading’ publications, regardless of whether you are a scholar no one has head of a few years out of your PhD, or a professor with 40 years experience and an international reputation.

The result is that research is no longer assessed by the REF, but rather produced for the REF in a worrying Orwellian model that utterly compromises academic integrity and against which we should fight back. The recent news that, as of REF2027 (or 26, who knows when it will happen considering we haven’t even had REF2021 yet) all books and book-length works are required to be available Open Access (i.e. free of charge to the public, as academic articles published in journals already have to be) is yet another nail in the coffin for UK research quality, announced by a body that is ostensibly in place to maintain the country’s research rigour.

The Royal History Society have written a comprehensive list of the ways that this requirement poses a threat to research in that discipline (it is worth reading in full as it is applicable across all humanities and possibly beyond). Quite why HEFCE would want to cause widespread anxiety by announcing this now, almost a decade before the audit happens — but, ironically, too late for those of us with book contracts with international presses due for delivery after 2020 — is beyond me. It feels like yet another attack on Higher Education by those gunning for its demise.

Whatever form the Open Access requirement takes, and however much HEFCE protests requirements will be made in ‘consultation’ with universities (I am preparing another post on the tyranny of ‘consultation’), this is a change that will — as HEFCE admit — require ‘a lot of work’ to implement. No. An audit process should not take resources away from the thing being audited. Our ‘hard work’ should be in writing the books, reading the books, and teaching our students — not in ensuring that we ‘comply’ with a complex top-down mandate or else risk our careers.

It is outrageous bordering on a national disgrace that we are now in a situation where the government is effectively interfering with the material substance of the research that goes on in our institutions. That we are increasingly unable to publish with the presses most suitable for our work, and must, instead, find ‘REF compliant’ publishers compromises academic objectivity — not to mention its rigour, reach and international credibility. I also wonder how it is even legal for the government to interfere in the market this way, forcing publishers who work with academics to either give their product away for free or else lose all business (I realise there are also questions to be asked about the ethics of some of the commercial academic publishers in relation to academic writing, but that’s a conversation for another time).

What can we do? I am asking seriously. How do we push back against this creeping threat to our work, its substance and our lives? The process of a peer-review quality check on research should not dictate the sector to this degree. REF in its current form is simply not sustainable, nor conducive to the health of research institutions or the people in them. This is violence by bureaucracy and it cannot be allowed to continue.

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Ten things about working in academia that no one told me and I wish someone had

 

Academia. What a weird job. At least in the humanities. There you are, reading dense, impenetrable books and thinking very very hard about a subject so specific others will wrinkle their brow, raise their eyebrows and go ‘Plays about council estates? You can get a PhD in that?’, when all of a sudden you realise you are building a career and you have absolutely no idea what you’re doing. Weirdest of all, there’s almost no training, yet, nonetheless, the moment you start your first job everyone presumes you are already familiar with basic aspects of the academic system that nobody bothered to tell you about.

Here are ten things I had to work out for myself, which I pass on in the hope that they might help you (please note this is a UK arts/humanities context and the below points may not apply to STEM, or to all international contexts, so take them with a pinch of salt):

  • You have to pay to attend conferences, even when you are giving a paper

This is the first thing that really surprised me about academia. I seriously struggled to accept the premise that I would give my labour to realise someone else’s event and pay for the privilege. No thank you, I thought. My paper can stay in my head and I will save £250 and the price of a train ticket to Lincoln. But then I attended and organised some conferences and understood that they are expensive to run, funding is scarce and the price of a conference fee usually just about covers running costs. (Having said that, conference organisers: please, I paid to be here. Give me lunch, and a pen).

The exception is if you are an invited speaker, or the keynote. Then you can usually expect some form of remuneration – at least a fee waiver and the cost of travel. If they invite you and can’t be arsed to pay for you to be there, they don’t really want you. As I learned recently when I paid to attend a conference at which I was an invited panel speaker (I agreed, against my better judgement, because otherwise every invited speaker would have been a (white) man), and the organisers left it to me to buy drinks for everyone in the pub afterwards. If the organisers of that conference are reading this, I will not be contributing to your special issue, please stop sending me emails.

  • You call the shots

You do not have to wait for someone (a supervisor, your line manager) to give you permission to write a journal article or present at a conference (if you are part of a large project or research team or discipline where your supervisor is default co-author ignore this advice and ask whoever is in charge before you use shared data). You can just do it as soon as you think you are ready. Do it before you’re ready, no one will mind.

  • People don’t remember bad conference papers (unless they are given by the keynote)

Honestly, I promise, if your paper is boring or poorly written, riddled with errors or unconvincingly argued, 90% of the audience, at the very minimum, will switch off and doodle on their conference programme, or check to see how long it is until the free wine is served. The exception to this is if you are offensive towards a minority group, or if you are a famous scholar. People remember and engage with good papers. It will not ruin your career if you give a presentation that is forgettable. What I am saying is, speak at the conference. Now is the time (once you have some findings and some ideas about them, or one of the two).

  • There are ways to earn money from academic writing

Not a lot of money, but a bit. Despite what people will tell you, some unknown scholars get advances for their first academic book, so you should at least ask if an advance is a possibility. I would advise not agreeing to publish with any publishing house that expects you to pay for the privilege.

ALSO: As soon as you publish anything sign up with the Authors Licensing and Collecting Society (ALCS, click here), who will collect money for secondary rights due for your work and pay you any funds collected twice annually (you’ll likely receive more than you expect). Do this for everything you publish, however niche, in a book, journal or magazine. If and when you publish a book register with the British Library’s Public Lending Rights service (click here), who will pay you when your book is borrowed from public libraries.

But…

  • Protect your copyright

I am so cross that I have happily signed copyright over to academic publishers when I didn’t need to. I find it unbelievable that I had to work out for myself that I didn’t always need to, and that none of my colleagues have ever thought to mention to me that this is often optional. If you are presented with an agreement where you are asked to assign copyright to the publisher, you should write to whoever sent you the agreement and ask instead to publish with a licence to publish agreement. You are not being difficult. This is an option that many academic publishers offer, but most of them won’t tell you about (although some will charge for). Check the publisher website before you submit and choose only to publish, where you can, with those who let you keep the rights to your work for free.

Join the Society of Authors and actively campaign for better conditions for academic writers.

  • No one cares if you aren’t an amazing teacher

Except you and your students, obviously.

It takes lots of us a while to find our teaching stride. Don’t be disheartened if it doesn’t come naturally, if you get mediocre (or even bad) evaluations or if students seem hostile or indifferent to your charms. Teaching is hard, we all know this. Students can be unreasonable and teaching evaluations are heavily biased. You aren’t going to lose your job because you gave a boring lecture. I swear.

  • Feedback is a gift

It won’t always feel that way. Often, even the most benign of criticisms about our scholarship will feel deeply wounding. Even praise will sometimes feel deeply wounding (this evening I have had to text four friends to cope with an email I received from a colleague calling my latest chapter ‘very interesting’). Peer reviewers can be snarky and pompous and deliberately cruel. But feedback is a gift. Those offering thoughts on your work are doing so because they want you to make it the best it can be. Feedback is a gift. Feedback is a gift. Receive it with grace.

  • No one cares if you skip a meeting

It took me a long time, having worked in ‘industry’ (scare quotes because I hate that word, but it is nearly midnight and I can’t think of another), to wrap my head around the fact that you can just give apologies, not attend a meeting and no one will care. I think this is an unspoken secret, because I’ve never heard anyone actually say it out loud. But almost always, at any academic meeting, half to one-third of the invited participants won’t be there, because they have other things to do. And that’s fine.

  • Everything takes, on average, three times as long as you think it will

This applies both to things you do yourself (organising events, writing articles and books, preparing teaching, marking etc.) and to things you are waiting for others to do (such as peer review, reply to an email, send you the article they promised for your edited collection, answer the phone). The latter is infintely more maddening.

  • You can ask what the acronym means

Universities are riddled with acronyms. Some of these (REF, TEF, HEFCE) etc. are national, some (SCUDD, ACLA, RGS) discipline specific, some are institution or even department specific. You will spend a lot of your working life sitting in the meetings you do attend, struggling to understand what everyone is on about and surreptitiously googling acronyms under the table. Save yourself the bother, ask.