REF prediction

I’ve come to feel more strongly that although the Research Excellence Framework (REF) is trying to do something reasonably decent, it is doing it in a ridiculous and counterproductive way. Not only does it take an awful lot of effort and time, it also has a big impact on how universities and university departments behave. As I’ve mentioned before, I think the amount of effort expended assessing the various university departments in order to give them a REF score seems excessive and that using metrics might be more appropriate. I don’t particularly like the use of metrics, but if ever there was an appropriate time it would be when assessing a large diverse organisation like a University.

To put my money where my mouth is, I decided to see if I could come up with a ranking for all of the 42 Physics and Astronomy departments that were included in RAE2008 (the precursor to REF). For REF2014, each department will submit 4 papers per submitted academic and these papers must be published or in press between January 2008 and October 2013. What I did is went to Web of Science and found all the papers published in Physics and Astronomy for each of the 42 departments included in RAE2008. Since it is currently October 2011, I used papers published between January 2006 to October 2011. I also didn’t exclude reviews or conference papers. For each department I then determined the h-index of their publications and the number of citations per publications. I then ranked the departments according to these two metrics and then decided that the final ranking would be determined by the average of these two rankings. The final table is shown below. It is ordered in terms of the average of the h-index and citations per publications ranking, but these individual rankings are also shown. I also show the ranking that each department achieved in RAE2008.

I don’t know if the above ranking has any merit, but it took a couple of hours and seems – at first glance at least – quite reasonable. The departments that one would expect to be strong are near the top and the ones that one might expect to be weaker are near the bottom. I’m sure a more sophisticated algorithm could be determined and other factors included but I predict (I’ll probably regret doing this) that the final rankings that will be reported sometime in 2015 will be reasonably similar to what I’ve produced in a rather unproductive afternoon. We’ll see.

Addendum – added 21/03/2013
Deevy Bishop, who writes a blog called BishopBlog, has carried out a similar excercise for Psychology. In her post she compares the h-index rank with the RAE2008 position and also works out the correlation. I thought I would do the same for my analysis. Slightly different in that Deevey Bishop considered the h-index rank for the time period associated with RAE2008, while I’ve considered the h-index rank associated with a time period similar to that for REF2014, but it should still be instructive. If I plot the RAE2008 rank against h-index rank, I get the figure below. The correlation is 0.66, smaller than the 0.84 that Deevey Bishop got for Psychology, but not insignificant. There are some clear outliers and the scatter is quite large. Also, this was a very quick analysis and something more sophisticated, but still simpler than what is happening for REF2004, could certainly be developed.

h-index rank from this work plotted against RAE2008 rank for all Physics departments included in RAE2008.

h-index rank from this work plotted against RAE2008 rank for all Physics departments included in RAE2008.

Additional addendum
Deevy Bishop, through a comment on my most recent post, has described a sensible method for weighting the RAE2008 results to take into account the number of staff submitted. The weighting (which essentially ranks them by how much the funding each institution received) is N(0.1×2* + 0.3×3* + 0.7×4*) where, N, is the number of staff submitted and 2*, 3*, 4* are the percentage of the submitted papers at each rating. If I then compare the h-index rank from above with this new weighted rank I get the figure below which (as Deevey Bishop found for psychology) shows a much stronger correlation than my figure above. Deevey Bishop checked the correlation for physics and found a value of 0.8 using the basic data, and a value of 0.92 if one included whether or not an institution had a staff member on the panel. I did a quick correlation and found a value of 0.92 without taking panel membership into account. Either way, the the correlation is remarkably strong and seems to suggest that one could use h-indices to get quite a good estimate of how to distribute the REF2014 funding.

Plot showing the h-index rank (x-axis) and a weighted RAE2008 ranking (y-axis) for all UK Physics institutions included in RAE2008.

Plot showing the h-index rank (x-axis) and a weighted RAE2008 ranking (y-axis) for all UK Physics institutions included in RAE2008.

Another addendum
I realised that in the figure above I had plotted RAE2008 funding level rank against h-index rank, rather than simply RAE2008 funding level against h-index. I’ve redone the plot and the new one is below. It still correlates well (correlation of 0.9 according to my calculation). I’ve also done a plot showing h-index (for the RAE2008 period admittedly) against what might be the REF2014 formula, which is thought to be N(0.1×3* + 0.9*4*). It still correlates well but, compared to the RAE2008 plot, it seems to shift the bottom points to the right a little. This is presumably because the funding formula now depends strongly on the fraction of 4* papers, and so the supposedly weaker institutions suffer a little compared to the more highly ranked institutions. Having said that, the plot using the possible REF2014 funding formula, does seem very similar to the RAE2008 figure, so I hope I haven’t made some kind of silly mistake. Don’t think so. Presumably it just means that for RAE2008, (0.1×3* + 0.9×4*) is similar to (0.1×2*+0.3×3*+0.7×4*).

A plot of h-index against the RAE2008 funding formula - N(0.1x2* + 0.3*3* + 0.7*4*).

A plot of h-index against the RAE2008 funding formula – N(0.1×2* + 0.3*3* + 0.7*4*).


A plot showing h-index (for RAE2008 period) plotted against a possible REF2014 formula - N(0.1x3* + 0.9x4*).

A plot showing h-index (for RAE2008 period) plotted against a possible REF2014 formula – N(0.1×3* + 0.9×4*).

The negative impact of REF

The more I learn about the Research Excellence Framework (REF) the less convinced I am about the merits of this whole exercise. That universities are assessed to get some idea of how best to distribute a pot of money is fine. The way in which it is done, and the “games” that appear to be played by universities and university departments, is what concerns me. For starters, something like 300 senior people are involved in actually carrying out the assessments and numerous others are involved in preparing the submissions. The cost of doing this must be substantial (plus these are meant to be our leading researchers who are spending a large fraction of their time assessing everyone else). Some might argue that the amount being distributed (billions) makes it worth spending all this money carrying out the assessment.

An alternative argument might be that if ever it was an appropriate occasion in which to use metrics, it would be when assessing a large diverse organisation like a university. The problem with metrics (like citations) is that comparing different fields (or even different areas within the same field) is difficult because there might different citation practices in different fields and the size of the field plays a role. A typical university, however, has so many different fields that these variations should – to a certain extent – cancel and one could probably get a pretty good idea of the quality of a university by considering citations statistics and other metrics (number of spin-out companies, patents, etc.). One could also be a bit cruder in the rankings. I don’t really believe that we can rank universities perfectly. Rather than first, second, third…, it could be top 3, next 5, next 5, etc.

What concerns me more are the implications of what universities and university departments seem to be willing to do to optimise their REF scores. You can include research fellows in REF submissions and so there will be lots of carrots dangled to try to ensure that no Fellows leave before the REF census date in October 2013. Some of these research fellows may also be offered permanent positions that will start when their Fellowships end, either to keep them or to attract them away from another university. These will clearly be very good researchers, but I have an issue with a hiring practice in which holding a Fellowship plays a significant role in whether or not you will be hired. Getting a Fellowship is a bit of a lottery in the first place and what about those whose Fellowships are just due to end. It becomes a bit of a career year lottery – if you have a number of years left on a Fellowship at the same time as a REF submission you are more likely to get a permanent academic job than if you don’t.

There are also other issues. Departments will potentially be creating a number of new posts at a very uncertain time. What if things do not work as expected. How do you pay these people once they come off their Fellowships. What about the stability of academic careers. A burst of hiring every 7 years to coincide with REF submissions doesn’t seem very sensible. I should add, however, that if anyone who actually reads this has managed to get a permanent job or a promise of a permanent job, well done to you. I should also add that my views are not really based on anything specific, just a sense that we are letting the REF dictate our behaviour in a way that may not be ideal and wouldn’t be how we’d behave if the REF wasn’t happening. You have to worry slightly about the validity of an assessment exercise that has such a potentially strong influence on the behaviour of the organisations it is trying to assess. Can’t really be regarded as independent.