REF is not peer review anyway

The results of the research excellence framework (REF) will be published on 18th December 2014. This will have a significant impact in higher education since the scores awarded determine how much funding universities will get for research and influence reputation and status. Academics are supposed to spend 40% of their time in research with 60% involving teaching and administrative tasks. However, despite the tenfold increase in students over the past fifty years, academics have had no choice and are spending more time on research. Or speaking personally, we are sacrificing weekends and evenings to keep the research going instead of spending the time with the family.

Universities have also been plotting to make them visible in REF terms. Some universities have hired research intensive staff with individuals who are high performers in research but have very little capabilities in teaching. Others have switched academic staff to teaching only contracts to make them invisible in REF terms. Many have also played with securing million pound project grants to fund high impact publications by collaborating in house with high fliers at prestigious universities who influence boards and budgets.

The awful truth is that REF is not peer review anyway. The 36 REF disciplinary subpanels assess outputs by in house panellists at UK institutions. An RAE panelist is not allowed to use metrics or citations and may read up to 1200 publications over a short time period. This job if done properly is time consuming (30 min per publication is equivalent to 36, 000 hours) and raises the question whether assessors actually have the time to read each output. Also, panellists may not necessarily have the expertise within a specialised discipline to evaluate the work. This happened to my paper that was ranked 2* instead of 4* when submitted by a professor instead of me.

Over the next few months, REF will lead to the inevitable discussions that focus on the winner and losers and who has moved up and down in the research rankings. We need to ask some fundamental questions on whether the REF exercise supports innovation and research excellence. Peter Scott recently characterised the REF as a “monster, a Minotaur that must be appeased by bloody sacrifices”.

The Times Higher gave five reasons why the £59m, time consuming monster is not fit for purpose