Research takes many forms

Principles are one thing. Logistics quite another. It can only be good news that the next Research Excellence Framework will aim to reduce burden on the sector and attempts to game the system.

Still, some of the proposed mechanisms for doing so might have unintended consequences. They could affect certain practice-led disciplines, and the specialist institutions that form part of the UK’s research base.

Ecology of institutions

Not all research in the UK is conducted in large multidisciplinary institutions. This is particularly marked in the case of the creative arts sector. Its specialist art schools and conservatoires provide unique, world-leading and innovative research environments.

Certain subjects (as with dance) don’t have a departmental presence in Russell Group institutions. Video game design largely features within post-1992 universities. The UK’s art schools and colleges offer key hubs for art and design innovation. Drama sometimes operates as a pocket of excellence in an institution that does not submit to the REF across all disciplines.

For small specialist institutions, the institutional framework and the REF’s Unit of Assessment are often one and the same thing. Would an institutional-level assessment force certain environments into a framework that appears to have been conceived for large scale HEIs?

Not all HEIs are equal – we forget this at our peril. Let’s ensure REF isn’t about simply rewarding those who are able to afford a highly developed research management infrastructure. It’s not what you have but what you do with it that matters.

Excellent research is produced at institutions of different scales and scopes. This respect for the rich and varied ecology of research institutions in the UK has arguably led to world-leading research.

Industry collaborations

The emphasis on recognising collaborations between academia and organisations beyond higher education is welcomed by research communities that feature a high number of staff members working between the two sectors.

The mechanisms for assessment, however, need to recognise that industry professionals moving into higher education are often on fractional contracts, since the value of their research depends on their continuing work with industry.

The Creative Industries Federation lists the positive contribution the arts and culture sector – to which research in HE contributes – makes to the UK economy. It’s responsible for  approximately 0.4 per cent of UK GDP. It contributed £27 billion to the UK economy in 2015. It supports 1.1 per cent of total UK employment, and makes a valuable contribution to health and well-being.

Any proposal to shift the submission minimum of 0.2 FTE could affect, in a detrimental manner, our ability to retain world-leading researchers working at the interface between higher education and industry.

Non-portability of outputs

There are huge challenges for practice research in Stern’s recommendation that ‘acceptance for publication’ be presented as a suitable marker to identify outputs that an institution can submit for assessment. The term ‘publication’ seems to make a series of assumptions about what constitutes an output that undermines the aspiration to recognise research excellence across different shapes and forms.

REF 2014’s Sub-panel 35 (Music, Drama, Dance and Performing Arts) delineated over 34 different types of output submitted for assessment: from advisory reports to databases, exhibition catalogues to electronic resources, compositions and musical scores to patents, performances and films.

Only 29.5 per cent of the research outputs submitted to Unit of Assessment 35 came in article form (compared to 37.7 per cent across Main Panel D, 99.5 per cent across Main Panel A, 94.4 per cent across Main Panel B, and 80.9 per cent across Main Panel C). In Music, non-text media submissions stood at 42 per cent.

While the principle of acknowledging investment is to be welcomed, the proposed non-portability of outputs presents a series of issues – ethical, practical, intellectual – that may have wider implications for issues of how ownership operates within the sector.

It is sometimes difficult to demonstrate where, precisely, ‘an output was demonstrably generated’. Consider, for example, a monograph that might have taken six years to research and write. Four years of the research might have been spent at one HEI with one sabbatical, and two years at another HEI, who granted a second period of sabbatical leave.

The institutional affiliation on publication might rest with the second HEI, but the first may legally claim it was ‘demonstrably generated’ there as this is where the academic was based when the work was initially accepted for publication. What might the implications be for chapters, articles or practice submitted to REF 2014 that form part of an extended project for REF 2021?

And what happens to outputs that don’t necessarily have an acceptance date for publication, as per creative practice? Is REF ‘ownership’ here determined by the date of commission? The date of completion? The date of performance? It is very hard to ‘date’ when exactly an artistic (or indeed academic) work originates – certainly it is irreducible to the point at which it is commissioned.

Indeed, it could be possible for a work to owe its entire existence to experiences of an artist/academic based at one institution over a number of years, working through informal collaborations with colleagues, discussions, experiments, without any commission at all.

How might REF ownership of outputs generated over years, or indeed decades, that might draw on multiple HEI or industry affiliations be attributed? How might investment of non-HEI collaborators – in an exercise seeking to support collaboration between academia and organisations beyond higher education – be acknowledged?

Artistic production – even where it leads to research outputs – is rarely developed solely in the context of an HEI, and is frequently collaborative, with a variety of external stakeholders.

Researchers are understandably concerned that intellectual and creative proprietorship of their own work could be diminished by what is proposed here. The need to acknowledge investment needs to take on board both the complex pattern of investments that often underpin research outputs and the promotion of equality and diversity – especially in terms of opportunities and support for Early Career Researchers and researchers moving between industry and the HEI sector.

Investing in research with an eye to the future means looking after our research cultures for future generations. Our REF should be about recognising where we want to be as much as where we’re coming from, and that includes respecting the diversity of the UK’s higher education sector – supporting both large and small institutions.


Look out for tomorrow’s guest blog post, when Tom Frostick from University Alliance will be reflecting on the proposal to submit all staff.