Sprout: REF and those elusive 4* triggers

So, by way of an update, I recently started working back in Museum Studies at the University of Leicester as a ‘REF Pathway’ Research Associate. Over the next six months (five months now, to be precise), I will be supporting the REF-able academics within the School to write and publish outputs judged to meet the 4* quality standards.

REF? What’s the heck is REF?

If you have no idea what I’m talking about, don’t worry, here’s a quick summary.

The Research Excellence Framework (REF) is an internationally recognised system for assessing the quality of research in UK Higher Education Institutions (HEIs). The results determine the amount of funding received by each HEI.^

The last REF was in 2014. The next is in 2021. One aspect of the process is that REF-able academics (those who meet the criteria are typically members of staff on permanent or long-term research or research-focused contracts) have their outputs (books, journal papers, etc.) published during the period since the last REF, assessed by external reviewers and classified accordingly:

4*  Quality that is world-leading in terms of originality, significance and rigour.

3*  Quality that is internationally excellent in terms of originality, significance and rigour but which falls short of the highest standards of excellence.

2*  Quality that is recognised internationally in terms of originality, significance and rigour.

1*  Quality that is recognised nationally in terms of originality, significance and rigour.

Unclassified  Quality that falls below the standard of nationally recognised work. Or work which does not meet the published definition of research for the purposes of this assessment.

Clearly, staff are under pressure to produce high quality, ‘world-leading’, ideally 4* outputs. There are lots of issues with REF, which I don’t intend to go into here (though if you want/need to know more, see here and here). Suffice it to say, it is far from a perfect system but it’s the system we currently have and there’s no getting away from it: good or bad, or somewhere in-between, it’s the context in which UK academics currently work.

I’m looking to work in academia. What does this mean for me?

So, what if you’re not currently on a permanent or long-term research-focused contract but are looking for one? At present, it’s quite likely that employers are specifically looking for academics who can or have the strong potential to boost their department’s REF 2021 rating. Which is entirely understandable, but if you haven’t yet been through a REF assessment or have academic mentors you can ask to informally review your work, what can you do to make yourself REF-able? What do those elusive 4* outputs ‘look’ like?

Like many things in academia, REF quality standards are inherently subjective. We can all look at the criteria above and have slightly different understandings of what ‘world-leading’ means or what the markers are for ‘originality’ and ‘significance’ (by the way, these criteria apply across the board – from the hard sciences to the arts and humanities). Rigour is a bit easier – we all know (should know) what scholarly rigour is and should look like, right?

Over the last few weeks in my new job, I ‘ve spent a good part of my time trawling through the REF guidance, reading guidance and the personal views of REF reviewers past and present about what makes a piece of writing original, significant and world-leading. In response I’ve compiled a list of five tips and hints for giving your work the best possible chance of hitting those 4* triggers – there are no guarantees, of course, but giving these things due consideration in your writing will put you in good stead (as well as equipping you with the language to talk about your work in REF-able terms).

Top 5 tips for producing world-leading, original, significant work

  1. Be explicit and signpost – highlight novelty, originality, significance, value … and do it often. Are you presenting a new philosophical position, a new way of thinking? Have you developed a new methodological approach? How is your work distinctive from existing published research?
  2. Foreground how the work contributes to larger, international arguments and debates … and do it often! Situate the research/writing/methods/approach/findings in an international context (why would/should someone in another part of the world care?)
  3. Make a strong case for the research and its value – does it have the potential for impact/influence in the field? Say so!
  4. Be clear and concise – avoid waffle, explain jargon
  5. It’s easier to assess well-written, well-structured work – make sure there’s a clear abstract, introduction and conclusion.

A final word: Reviewers will be busy, they may have lots to read and may not have specialist knowledge so be sure to impress them quickly and immediately and make their job easy.

Have you received any great REF-related advice? Want to share it? Leave a comment below!

^ See https://ucaref.wordpress.com/ref-terms-explained/, accessed 31 May 2018

Sprout: nurture, grow, bloom

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