Among all the recently research-related news, we now know that UK universities will be making their submissions to the Research Excellence Framework on 31 March 2021.
And a series of proposals are in place to mitigate against the worst effects of COVID-19 on research productivity. This has led to lots of huffing and puffing from research administrators about the additional burden and another round of ‘What’s the point?’ Tweets from exasperated academics. And it has led me to reflect dreamily again about alternatives to the REF and whether there could be a better way. Something that UKRI are already starting to think about.
One of the research evaluation approaches I’ve often admired is that of the Dutch Standard Evaluation Protocol (SEP). So when I saw that the Dutch had published the next iteration of their national research evaluation guidance, I was eager to take a look. Are there lessons here for the UK research community?
I think so.
The first thing to say of course, is that unlike REF, the Dutch system is not linked to funding. This makes a huge difference. And the resulting freedom from feeling like one false move could plummet your institution into financial and reputational ruin is devoutly to be wished. There have been many claims – particularly at the advent of COVID-19 – that the REF should be abandoned and some kind of FTE-based or citation-based alternative used to distribute funds. Of course the argument was quickly made that REF is not just about gold, it’s about glory, and many other things besides. Now I’m no expert on research funding, and this piece is not primarily about that. But I can’t help thinking, what if REF WAS just about gold? What if it was just a functional mechanism for distributing research funds and the other purposes of REF (of which there are five) were dealt with in another way? It seems to me that this might be to everybody’s advantage.
And the immediate way the advantage would be felt perhaps, would be through a reduction in the volume and weight of guidance. The SEP is only 46 pages long (including appendices) and, perhaps with a nod to their general levity about the whole thing, is decorated with flowers and watering cans. The REF guidance on the other hand, runs to 260 pages. (124 pages for the Guidance on Submissions plus a further 108 pages for the Panel Criteria and Working methods and 28 pages for the Code of Practice – much of which cross-refers and overlaps).
And if that’s not enough to send research administrators into raptures, the SEP was published one year prior to the start of the assessment period. Compare this to the REF where the first iteration of the Guidance on Submissions was published five years into the assessment period, and where fortnightly guidance in the form of FAQs continues to be published, and where we are still yet to receive some of it months before the deadline.
Of course, I understand why the production of REF guidance is such an industry: it’s because they are enormously consultative, and they are enormously consultative because they want to get it right, and they want to get it right because there is a cash prize. And that, I guess, is my point.
But it’s not just the length of course, it’s the content. If you want to read more about the SEP, you can check out their guidance here. It won’t take you long – did I say it’s only 46 pages? But in a nutshell: SEP runs on a six-yearly cycle and seeks to evaluate research units in light of their own aims to show they are worthy of public funding and to help them do research better. It asks them to complete a self-evaluation that reflects on past performance as well as future strategy, supported by evidence of their choosing. An independent assessment committee then performs a site visit and has a conversation with the unit about their performance and plans, and provides recommendations. That’s it.
Measure by mission
The thing I love most about the new SEP is that whilst the ‘S’ used to stand for ‘Standard’, it now stands for ‘Strategy’. So unlike REF where everyone is held to the same standard (we are all expected to care 60% about our outputs, 15% about our research environment and 25% about real-world impact), the SEP seeks to assess units in accordance with their own research priorities and goals. It recognises that universities are unique and accepts that whilst we all love to benchmark, no two HEIs are truly comparable. All good research evaluation guidance begs evaluators to start with the mission and values of the entity under assessment. The SEP makes good on this.
And of course the benefit of mission-led evaluation is that it takes all the competition out of it. There are no university-level SEP League tables, for example, because they seem to have grasped that you can’t rank apples and pears. If we really prize a diverse ecosystem of higher education institutions, why on earth are we measuring them all with the same template?
Realistic units of assessment
In fact, I’m using the term ‘institutions’ but unlike the REF, the SEP at no time seeks to assess at institutional level. They seek only to assess research at the level that it is performed: the research unit. And the SEP rules are very clear that “the research unit should be known as an entity in its own right both within and outside of the institution, with its own clearly defined aims and strategy.”
So no more shoe-horning folks from across the university into units with other folks they’ve probably never even met, and attempting to create a good narrative about their joined-up contribution, simply because you want to avoid tipping an existing unit into the next Impact Case Study threshold. (You know what I’m talking about). These are meaningful units of assessment and the outcomes can be usefully applied to, and owned by, those units.
Evaluate with the evaluated
And ownership is so important when it comes to assessment. One of the big issues with the REF is that academics feel like the evaluation is done to them, rather than with them. They feel like the rules are made up a long way from their door, and then taken and wielded sledge-hammer-like by “the University”, AKA the poor sods in some professional service whose job it is to make the submission in order to keep the research lights on for the unsurprisingly ungrateful academic cohort. It doesn’t make for an easy relationship between research administrators and research practitioners.
Imagine then if we could say to academic staff, we’re not going to evaluate you any more, you’re going to evaluate yourselves. Here’s the guidance (only 46 pages – did I say?) off you go. Imagine the ownership you’d engender. Imagine the deep wells of intrinsic motivation you’d be drawing on. Indeed, motivational theory tells us that intrinsic motivation eats extrinsic motivation for breakfast. And that humans are only ever really motivated by three things: autonomy, belonging and competence. To my mind, the SEP taps into them all:
- Autonomy: you set your own goals, you choose your own indicators, and you self-assess. Yes, there’s some guidance, but it’s a framework and not a straight-jacket and if you want to go off-piste, go right ahead. Yes, you’ll need to answer for your choices, but they are still your choices.
- Belonging: the research unit being assessed is the one to which you truly belong. You want it to do well because you are a part of this group. Its success and its future is your success and your future.
- Competence: You are the expert on you and we trust that you’re competent enough to assess your own performance, to choose your own reviewers, and to act on the outcomes.
The truth will set you free
One of the great benefits of being able to discuss your progress and plans in private, face-to-face, with a group of independent experts that you have a hand in choosing, is that you can be honest. Indeed, Sweden’s Sigridur Beck from Gothenburg University confirmed this when talking about their institution-led research assessment at a recent E-ARMA webinar. She accepted that getting buy-in from academics was a challenge when there was nothing to win, but that they were far more likely to be honest about their weaknesses when there was nothing to lose. And of course, with the SEP you have to come literally face-to-face with your assessors (and they can choose to interview whoever they like) so there really is nowhere to hide.
The problem with REF is that so much is at stake it forces institutions to put their best face on, to create environment and impact narratives that may or may not reflect reality. It doesn’t engender cold, hard, critical self-assessment which is the basis for all growth. With REF you have to spin it to win it. And it’s not just institutions that feel this way. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard it said that REF UoA panels are unlikely to score too harshly as it will ultimately reflect badly on the state of their discipline. This concerns me. Papering over the cracks is surely never a good building technique?
Formative not summative
Of course the biggest win from a SEP-style process rather than a REF-style one is that you end up with a forward-looking report and not a backward-looking score. It’s often struck me as ironic that the REF prides itself on being “a process of expert review” but actually leaves institutions with nothing more than a spreadsheet full of numbers and about three lines of written commentary. Peer review in, scores out. And whilst scores might motivate improvement, they give the assessed absolutely zero guidance as to how to make that improvement. It’s summative, not formative.
The SEP feels truer to itself: expert peer review in, expert peer review out. And not only that but “The result of the assessment must be a text that outlines in clear language and in a robust manner the reflections of the committee both on positive issues and – very distinctly, yet constructively – on weaknesses” with “sharp, discerning texts and clear arguments”. Bliss.
Proof of the pudding
I could go on about the way the SEP insists on having ECRs and PhD students on the assessment committee; and about the way units have to state how they’re addressing important policy areas like academic culture and open research; and the fact that viability is one of the three main pillars of their approach. But you’ll just have to read the 46-page guidance.
The proof of the pudding, of course, is in the eating. So how is this loosey-goosey, touchy feely approach to research evaluation actually serving our laid-back low-country neighbours?
Pretty well actually.
The efficiency of research funding in the Netherlands is top drawer. And whichever way you cut the citation data, the Netherlands significantly outperforms the UK. According to SciVal, research authored by those in the Netherlands (2017-2019) achieved a Field Weighted Citation Impact of 1.76 (where 1 is world average). The UK comes in at 1.55. And as far as I can see, the only countries that can hold a candle to them are Denmark, Sweden and Switzerland – none of which have a national research assessment system.
It seems to me that we have so much to gain from adopting a SEP-style approach to research evaluation. In a post-COVID-19 world there is going to be little point looking back at this time in our research lives and expecting it to compare in any way with what’s gone before. It’s time to pay a lot less attention to judging our historical performance, and start thinking creatively about how we position ourselves for future performance.
We need to stop locking our experts up in dimly lit rooms scoring documentation. We need to get them out into our universities to meet with our people, to engage with our challenges, to breathe our research air, and to collectively help us all to be the best that we can be – whatever ’best’ may look like for us. I believe that this sort of approach would not only dramatically reduce the burden (I’m not sure if I said, but the SEP is only 46 pages long), but it would significantly increase buy-in and result in properly context-sensitive evaluations and clear road-maps for ever-stronger research-led institutions in the future.
Frankly, I don’t want to come out of REF 2027 with another bloody spreadsheet, I want us to come out energised having engaged with the best in our fields, and positioned for the next six years of world-changing research activity.