The REF guidance isn't trying to catch you out
31 January 2019
Today, the four UK higher education funding bodies have published the final guidance and criteria for REF 2021. Running to over 300 pages in total, the ‘Guidance on submissions’ and ‘Panel criteria and working methods’ are the product of months of drafting, redrafting, consultation, redrafting and yet more redrafting. Each iteration of the guidance has addressed the questions and concerns raised in response to the previous version, and incorporated the changes suggested by our expert panels. They are very much documents drafted by committee – one that includes the REF team, the REF Steering Group, 34 sub-panels, four main panels, two advisory panels, and a large chunk of the higher education community.
As a result, one of the main challenges for the REF team has been balancing nuance with clarity. How do we get across the guidance in all its complexity while making sure that it is still readable? That is why one of the key questions we asked in the consultation in summer 2018 was ‘how clear is the guidance?’ Responses to this question varied slightly by policy area, but overall roughly 85% of respondents thought the guidance and criteria were clear. However, this question did reveal some sections where more work was needed.
To some extent, this was to be expected. New policy areas, such as identifying staff with significant responsibility for research, demand levels of detail and nuance that may not be necessary for more established rules. In the final guidance we have attempted to address some aspects that caused confusion in earlier drafts. For example, we have stated clearly that we recognise that not all staff on teaching and research contracts are independent researchers and have set out how institutions can identify them through the significant responsibility for research route. We also plan to produce two short documents that bring together the guidance and criteria in two other policy areas: interdisciplinary research and open access. This is in response to feedback that it was burdensome to have to flick between sections and documents to find the relevant guidance.
Scepticism seems to lie at the heart of some other areas of misunderstanding. One of the questions that pops up again and again is ‘yes, but what do you/the panels really mean?’ There is a tendency to scrutinise every word and semi-colon for hidden meanings. In particular, there is a persistent belief that panels have secret preferences (e.g. for types of impact) or prejudices (e.g. against certain journals) that lurk beneath the surface of the guidance. This is why the panels have spent months poring over the guidance and criteria, trying to spot phrases that may be misinterpreted. The consultation responses have been incredibly helpful in enabling us to identify some of those areas and we have sought to address them where possible.
We are acutely aware of how important the REF is to institutions, not least in informing the allocation of around £2bn of research funding per year. The chance to participate only comes around every six to seven years and it is understandable that institutions do not want to fail on a technicality. Having spent time on the other side of the fence – in a university research office and as an academic – I understand the pressures that drive the forensic reading of any REF publications. However, I would like to encourage anyone reading the guidance to bear in mind that neither the funding bodies nor the REF panels want to trip you up or catch you out. We see the REF as an opportunity for UK research to shine and have done our best to create a framework that will allow it to do so.
And if you do have questions, just ask! Get in touch with your institutional contact (http://www.ref.ac.uk/contact/) who will be able to provide you with advice on your specific situation. Or, if they can’t help (or you are the institutional contact!), email the REF team: email@example.com. We have also updated the FAQs on the REF website (www.ref.ac.uk/about/faqs) to include many of the issues raised during the consultation.