A REF conundrum

For those who have read any of my previous posts, you’ll know that I’m not a fan on the Research Excellence Framework (REF2014). I’ve blogged about the negative impact of REF before. Essentially, although it may aiming to do something quite reasonable, the way in which it is aiming to do this, and the impact it is having on the way universities are behaving, seem very negative to me. I did, however, think of something particular that I thought I would blog about here.

Basically, each university department in the UK will submit – to be assessed by the relevant REF panel – 4 refereed journal papers from all, or some, of their academics and research fellows. Each paper will be scored as either 1*, 2*, 3*, or 4*. The amount of money that the university will then get will depend on the average score and the number of people submitted. It’s still not quite clear if it’s better to submit fewer people, so as to get a higher score, or to simply submit as many eligible people as possible. However, I believe that someone cannot be submitted if they don’t have 4 refereed journal papers published between January 2008 and October 2013.

Here’s where I thought there could be a possible issue. Consider the situation in which there is someone in a university department who is the primary author on 4 refereed journal papers that are probably okay. They will probably score 3*. Imagine there is a second person in the same department who is the lead author on only 3 papers, but they’re fantastic papers and will probably score 4*. This second person, I think cannot be submitted to REF. However, if they happen to also be an author on one or more of the first person’s papers, one of these papers could be transferred to the second person who now has 4 papers (one scoring 3* and the others potentially scoring 4*). If this paper has 10 or fewer authors, the second person’s contribution does not even need to be justified. If it has more than 10, there would need to be some narrative explaining the second person’s contribution to the paper. The first person can now no longer, however, be submitted to REF.

In some sense, the fact that the first person can no longer be submitted to REF doesn’t matter. Individuals aren’t actually assessed. It’s simply that a subset of their papers are used to assess the research quality of a university department. However, an individual must be associated with each set of 4 papers. It’s in the department’s interest to submit the strongest set of papers. The first person is, however, someone who was not formally submitted and so this could disadvantage them (in a career sense) if people at their university don’t realise why. Also, if such a scenario were to occur, should the first person (and second I guess) approve the strategy. Is it acceptable for a university department to simply decide who should take credit for a particular paper? What if the first person objected and insisted that their 4 papers (which are good but not fantastic) be submitted to REF and refused to allow the department to transfer one of their papers to someone else?

I’m not sure if the above scenario is at all likely. I do think, however, that there will be situations (where more than one person in a department is an author on a paper) in which a decision will have to be made as to who should be credited with a particular paper and that it may well go to the person who played the less significant role. Given that individuals are not actually being assessed, it is logical that the optimal set of papers be submitted. However, it is an interesting issue as to whether or not it is acceptable for a university department to decide on who gets credit for a paper. Given that someone objecting to this strategy would disadvantage their department, I suspect that most will be largely happy with this. It does, however, seem to be something that could create some difficulties.

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