Interdisciplinary research and the Research Excellence Framework

Interdisciplinary research and the Research Excellence Framework

15 October 2018


No doubt everyone is eagerly contemplating the REF Guidance on Submissions and Panel Criteria, which are currently under consultation. These documents include details of the new measures in place to support the submission and assessment of interdisciplinary research (IDR). I hope IDAP (the Interdisciplinary Advisory Panel, which I chair) has been able to make good progress in establishing processes which act to ensure IDR is properly assessed, thereby encouraging the community – and the HEI leaders making decisions about submissions – that there is no risk in submitting outputs of this type.  Our key aim in IDAP in providing this advice has been to give greater confidence to institutions and to researchers alike that IDR will be treated fairly, thereby encouraging its submission.

Here I would like to spell out our proposals for IDR assessment as set out within the guidance and criteria, in particular the definition of IDR and guidance on the assessment criteria.

IDAP advised on a number of measures to achieve fair assessment: building IDR expertise into the panel structures at all levels; developing an IDR advisory network and collaborative working practices; and giving greater guidance to institutions and panels respectively on identifying and assessing IDR outputs. A key requirement was agreeing a definition of IDR for the REF to guide institutions when to flag outputs as IDR. This definition is now set out in the draft guidance and is repeated here:

For the purposes of the REF, interdisciplinary research is understood to achieve outcomes (including new approaches) that could not be achieved within the framework of a single discipline. Interdisciplinary research features significant interaction between two or more disciplines and / or moves beyond established disciplinary foundations in applying or integrating research approaches from other disciplines.

While developing a definition of IDR for the purposes of the REF was a challenging task (as I always knew it would be as soon as I was invited to take on the role of Chair), in view of the multiple and diverse ways in which this term is used and understood by different communities, we felt that an explicit definition would best enable the IDR flag to be used. Our approach has been to develop a definition which is REF- specific, broad and encompassing; emphasising disciplinary interaction within the research, without narrowly defining what or how this is achieved.

One key point it’s important to underline, however, is the distinction between flagging an output as IDR, and the process for cross-referring outputs to other sub-panels for advice. Flagging an output as IDR will bring that output within the oversight of the sub-panel’s IDR advisers, who will take a key role in advising the sub-panel on the most appropriate assessment approach for the output. Cross-referral will operate as in the last REF.

Another key measure we felt would give greater confidence about IDR assessment in the REF is the provision of additional guidance on how the assessment criteria for outputs (originality, significance and rigour) should be applied for IDR outputs. There were challenges in setting meaningful guidelines for the generic criteria, without overly singling out or indicating different assessment standards for one category of research to achieve over others. However, we consider that the guidance set out strikes this balance, and gives a clear message that originality and significance can be identified in one or more aspects of the IDR output, and / or in the outcomes of the integration of different disciplines, even where some of the individual discipline input is more routine. This, to my mind, is crucial. How often – at grant-giving panels for instance – does one hear the charge ‘but part of this research is not cutting-edge’ levelled against IDR, a criticism which then condemns the application to failure. It is crucial that we recognise that the synergy of different strands may be wholly novel and exciting, even if some of the ingredients are not.

We are keen to understand if the measures as set out will achieve our aim of increasing HEIs’ confidence to submit IDR outputs in REF 2021 and, if not, what further steps we can take. The consultation is open until 15th October, and we welcome your comments.