Using The REF In Your Research Planning

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REF2020?! But the REF 2014 results were only just released yesterday! For those new to the game, it can be hard to digest the fact that no sooner than one round of assessment is completed then the next is underway. And like it or not, universities across the UK are already looking ahead to the next REF – so you should make sure that you structure your own research agenda with this in mind.

But what if my research cycle doesn’t ‘fit’ with the timing of the REF? This can be a frequent concern of younger or early career researchers. Bear in mind two things. Firstly, the REF takes into account when an early career academic entered the profession (early career researchers are not required to submit 4 items in their first REF, for instance). Secondly, the REF doesn’t differentiate between a monograph and an article, which is a way of avoiding research ‘bottlenecks’ (i.e. if everyone were to feel under pressure to produce a monograph at a particular point in a given cycle, for instance). This allows new researchers time to calibrate the timing of their research appropriately.

Another, frequently voiced concern is about the future of the REF. Yes, the REF may be replaced by something else, with a change of government; and yes, it seems likely that grant capture from research councils will become even more important than it currently is – particularly if QE (government funding for research distributed on the basis of REF results) is to be removed or shrunk significantly. But the fact remains that the REF is extremely useful marketing tool in the increasingly competitive HE market, so don’t expect it to vanish altogether.

So the wise researcher will pay attention to the REF when considering his or her research. Bear in mind the following:

    Plan, plan, plan

Planning is essential for you to manage your research so that outputs are staggered. In particular, you need to ensure you have enough outputs early to mid- REF cycle in order to allow for them to be replaced by larger outputs towards the end. Plan your own five-year cycle. The REF usually assesses six years at a time, but if you work to a five-year plan yourself this gives you a little extra time for development, grant applications, and time for assessing and reviewing your own progress.

Be strategic

Target your publishers and projects wisely, bearing in mind the agenda of the REF. Think in particular about its current focus on ‘impact’ (this may not be something you will always be able to demonstrate, but you should have ways of indicating to your colleagues that it is an aspect of research you take seriously). Make sure that the journals and publications you publish in are held in high esteem in your field and have a rigorous peer review process, and avoid publishers who require a fee to publish your work. Be judicious, and realistic. If your work is turned down by the highest-ranking publisher or journal in your field, have a back-up plan and do not despair.

Thinking beyond the REF

Remember that some projects will, quite rightly, take much longer than the REF cycle. Your strategic plan is key here: have long-term, large-scale aims to be sure, but back these up by planning for outputs in the short to medium term.

Break it down

Your research is not all about writing – it also is about many other areas of activity. Break these down, and set yourself specific, realistic goals in a number of areas. Assess the following: your standing / profile; your role in your community network; improving connections; targeting publishers; recruiting PhD students, and, perhaps most importantly nowadays, grant capture.

Be realistic

In all this, do not lose sight of your personal aims and values. Yes, the REF is instrumental in ways that many academics find inimical to their perception of academia, but it is also a reality of the situation that is best faced head on. Keep in mind that while the REF can seem short-termist and to encourage expediency, working with its demands is the best way for you to achieve your longer term research ambitions.

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