Why I think that the proposal to remove publication portability from REF2021 should be scrapped

By Charlotte Dodson, Research Fellow at Imperial College London

Charlotte Dodson

“Do we know what’s happening about REF yet?” asked one of the participants at the departmental Principal Investigator (PI) meeting last term. There was a gentle shaking of heads around the table and we moved on. Shortly afterwards I knew the answer: the Stern Review (a UK Government-commissioned independent review into how Research Excellence Framework (REF) 2014 should be improved for next time) made its recommendations. There is now a consultation by HEFCE and its equivalents in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland on how best to implement these in REF 2021.

Many of the recommendations aim to fix difficulties with REF2014, reduce ‘gaming’ of the process and, in the context of papers (‘research outputs’), move the focus from the individual to the Unit of Assessment. The difficulty for me as an untenured early career independent researcher comes with the recommendation that says that research outputs should not be portable[1]. In essence, this means that when I come to the end of my fixed term contract and potentially leave my current institution, all my papers (coming from research that was my idea and that I brought to my department when I took up my fellowship) stay and contribute towards the REF score of Imperial College, while I have nothing with which to tempt my next employer. Under the rules of REF 2014 and its predecessors, on my departure I would have taken the papers away from Imperial and my new employer would have been able to submit them in their REF return as evidence of the quality of researcher they currently have employed.

Taken from REF2014 website (www.ref.ac.uk)

Curiously, this change seems to be based largely on complaints from institutions that researchers have a tendency to move institution shortly before the REF census date and that this disincentivises institutional investment in individual careers[2]. To me, this is very one-sided, it ignores the personal upheaval and research interruption experienced by moving research institution and makes the assumption that individuals move only for short term salary gain, not because of longer-term problems with perceived promotion opportunities, teaching loads, facilities, workplace cultures and student quality at their current institution. These are all areas which might improve institutional retention. While the timing of an individual’s movement may well be influenced by the REF cycle, neither the Stern Review (including the submitted evidence on which it was based), nor the current consultation document offers any evidence that the individuals concerned would have remained at their original institution in the long term had REF not been in place.

The biggest problem with the new proposal, however, is not that it sets out to solve a skewed problem seen only through the eyes of institutions, rather than researchers; it is that non-portability doesn’t incentivise long-term investment in individual careers by institutions. Many departments at top ranking UK Universities routinely hire group leaders funded by external bodies (e.g. Royal Society or Research Council Career Development Awards) on fixed term 5-year contracts.  If the host institution gains the REF benefit and the researcher has nothing to take away, there is every incentive to the institution to replace them at the end of five years with another externally funded researcher, who will bring in their own salary at no cost to the institution.

In an acceptance that early career researchers have the most to lose from non-portability of research output, the current consultation sets out various suggestions to alleviate this. What it doesn’t address is that everyone on fixed term contracts whose position is not underwritten by permanent funds stands to lose (for example, what about students and postdocs whose work is withheld from publication until a Principal Investigator has a contract at a new institution?). The same applies to anyone made redundant towards the end of a REF cycle.  Ending portability may end the clustering of institutional transfers close to the REF census date, but I doubt it will end institutional mobility (nor should we necessarily want it to). It might instead encourage a clustering of (0.2 full time equivalent) part-time appointments at the start of a cycle (to enable research from successful overseas researchers to be included in the REF submission).

The stated aim of the Stern recommendation on publication portability is to reward and encourage long-term investment in researcher careers by institutions. In my view it doesn’t achieve this and tinkering at the edges won’t fix it. According to the Review itself, not a single individual (as opposed to institution) supported this recommendation [3] and HEFCE and its equivalents should have the courage to drop it in its entirety.

[1] The proposal is that research outputs can only be submitted for REF2021 by the Institution at which the individual was based when a paper was accepted for publication.

[2] Stern Review, paragraph 72 states: “An institution might invest very significantly in the recruitment, start up and future career of a faculty member, only to see the transfer market prior to REF drastically reduce the returns to that investment.”

[3] The Call for Evidence by the Stern Review had 77 individual responses and 113 Institutional responses.

The Higher Education Funding Council for England is inviting responses from higher education institutions and other groups and organisations with an interest in the conduct, quality, funding or use of research. The deadline for responding is noon on Friday 17 March 2017 using the online form.

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