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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