If you are a British academic then you will be aware that Lord Stern published his recommendations for REF (the research excellence framework) this week.  REF is a thoroughly awful but necessary process.  Currently your academic career is distilled down to 4 publications and assessed every 4-5 years.  Papers are classified via some unknown system into 2*, 3* or 4* outputs and your value as an academic recorded appropriately.   Given that higher REF scores result in more money for Universities, your individual REF score has a very real impact on your value to your employer.  This has pros and cons as I will set out below.

Here are some of the recommendations and my thoughts:

  • Recommendation 1: All research active staff should be returned in the REF
  • Recommendation 2: Outputs should be submitted at Unit of Assessment level with a set average number per FTE but with flexibility for some faculty members to submit more and others less than the average.
  • What currently happens?  At the moment your employer decides whether your outputs make you “REF-able”.  In other words, if you don’t have 4 good outputs/publications, you won’t be submitted and you are REF-invisible
  • Stern recommendation: Stern recommends that all research-active staff be submitted and that the average number of outputs is 2.  However, there is a twist – the number of submissions per person can be between 0 and 6.  Therefore you may be submitted with zero outputs, which is perhaps even worse than being REF-invisible.  Given the formula for the number of expected outputs is 2*N (where N is the number of research-active staff), if a University has less than 2*N good impacts, there must surely be a pressure to transfer those with few outputs onto a teaching contract rather than a research contract.  And given the range of 0 to 6, I can see established Profs taking up all 6, with early career researchers being dumped or submitted with zero outputs.  So I’m not impressed by this one.

 

  • Recommendation 3: Outputs should not be portable.
  • What currently happens?  At the moment, an output stays with the individual.  So if I publish a Nature paper during a REF cycle and then move to another University, then my new employer gets the benefit, rather than my old employer.  This has resulted in REF-based recruitment, whereby individuals are recruited by Universities (often with high salaries and incentives) specifically because they have good REF outputs.
  • Stern recommendation: that outputs are not portable.  Specifically that publications remain with the employer present when they are accepted for publication.   It’s worth reading what the Stern report says here: “There is a problem in the current REF system associated with the demonstrable increase in the number of individuals being recruited from other institutions shortly before the census date. This has costs for the UK HEI system in terms of recruitment and retention”.   Read and re-read this sentence in context – high impact publications directly influence how much money a University gets from the government; yet here Stern argues that this shouldn’t be used for “recruitment and retention” of staff who produce those publications.  In other words current REF rules are pitched not as some sort of incentive to reward good performance, but as some kind of unnecessary cost that should be banished from the system.   Yes – read it again – potential staff rewards for good performance (“retention”) are quite clearly stated as a “cost” and as a “problem” to HEIs.
  • What the old REF rules did, in a very real way, is give power to the individual.  Publish some high impact papers and not only will other HEI’s offer you a job, but your existing employer might try and keep you, offering incentives such as pay rises and promotions.  What Stern is recommending is that power is taken from the individual and handed to the institution.  Once you publish, that’s it, they own the output.  No need to reward the individual anymore.
  • This also has the perverse outcome that an institution’s REF score shows how good they were not how good they are.  Take an extreme toy example – University A might have 100 amazing researchers between 2010 and 2014 and achieve an incredible REF score in 2015; yet they all may have left to go to University B.  How good is University A at research?  Well, not very good because all of their research-active staff left – yet they still have a really good REF score.

 

I don’t really have any major objections to the other recommendations; I think Stern has done a pretty good job on those.  However, I’m not at all happy with 1-3 above.   There are actually very few incentives for pay rises amongst UK academics, and REF was one of those incentives.  Stern wants to remove it.  You can see how healthy your University’s accounts are here (from here);  you will see that the vast majority (about 110 out of 120) UK universities generated an annual surplus last year, and the whole sector generated a surplus of £1.8Bn.   Yet somehow, incentives to promote, recruit and retain staff who are performing well is  a “cost” and a “problem”.  I also don’t think that the recommendations help ECRs as they could remain invisible to the entire process.

In conclusion, I don’t think the recommendations of Stern – or to give him his full title, Professor Lord Stern, Baron of Brentford, FRS, FBA – do anything positive for the individual researcher, they don’t provide much help for ECRs, and they hand power back to Universities.