Now in its second incarnation, the Research Excellence Framework (REF) is the means of assessing the quality of research in UK HEIs. Organised and undertaken by the four British research councils, the REF is a process of expert review of 34 subject-based Units of Assessment (UoAs). Expert panels assess three distinct elements of an HEI’s research, namely: the quality of research outputs, the impact of the research beyond academia, and the environment that supports the research.
The REF is used to provide accountability for public investment; to provide benchmarking information; and most importantly for HEIs, to determine the allocation of research funding. With the next assessment due to take place in 2021, HEIs across the country are already gearing up for the REF.
Indeed, my institution, the University of Cambridge, has created a number of new roles which are exclusively REF-focussed; this includes my own position, as REF UoA Coordinator at the School of Clinical Medicine.
At present, I am mostly concerned with the School’s research outputs. In order to be eligible for submission to the REF, research outputs with an International Standard Serial Number (ISSN) must be made Open Access within three months of acceptance for publication. For the purposes of REF, Open Access means that a research output is deposited in an institutional or subject repository which can be accessed by anyone with an internet connection.
I believe Open Access publication is a vital element in the research cycle as it allows for the widespread dissemination of research, which can, and should lead to a variety of positive outcomes. Open Access publication has the potential to allow university students the freedom to use and repurpose research in new and interesting ways; to encourage life-long learning among the general public; and to stimulate innovation in business.
For similar reasons, I am a huge proponent of the importance of the research impact element of the REF. Indeed, it lies at the core of the REF’s mission: to produce evidence of the benefits of public investment in research. As part of the assessment, HEIs are required to submit a number of Impact Case Studies, which outline specific changes made to society as a result of their research. This can range from contributing to government policy to establishing spin-out companies, and anything in between.
HEIs are required to demonstrate both the reach and significance of their impact. A number of the most inspiring Impact Case Studies from the previous REF in 2014 demonstrated a real depth of impact through detailing how academic research has been used to transform the way of life of a given community. In some instances, archaeological research incorporated a public engagement element which allowed individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds within the locality to develop their skills and improve their aspirations. In other instances, medical advancements saw the development of drugs which changed the way of life for sufferers of a particular disease across the globe.
Whilst there are some critics of the REF, who view it as a means of incentivising a business-like approach to HE, the exercise should be used as a tool for HEIs to ensure the widespread dissemination of their research, and to fully consider the value of their research in real-world terms. This in turn will ensure that UK research continues to be world-leading; academics from across the globe will have easy access to UK research, perhaps facilitating further developments and future collaboration, and UK HEIs will have the capacity to develop better practice in planning and implementing pathways to research impact.
About the Author
Amy Dolben is REF UoA Coordinator at the University of Cambridge School of Clinical Medicine. She received her BA and MPhil from the University of Cambridge, before beginning her HE career with the Ambitious Futures Graduate Scheme, the graduate programme for university leadership.