Rapid technological developments, changes in public policy, and shifts in the international environment all impact academia. To help understand these impacts, a recent study by RAND Europe asked more than 3,600 academics in England how they expect their research to evolve over the next decade.
Here’s what they said: more and different types of media and materials – outputs – will likely be utilised to disseminate research findings. And the wider societal impact of research will continue to be diverse.
The study was commissioned by Research England, an organisation responsible for funding and engaging with English higher education institutions. Its analysis covers the types of output researchers are currently producing, what they plan to produce, what they want to produce and how this may affect the nature of national research assessment. The findings will help Research England prepare for future assessments within the Research Excellence Framework (REF), the United Kingdom’s system for assessing research produced by higher education institutions.
The study is very forward-looking, and will help inform results for the next assessment – as far away as 2028. Commissioning research this far in advance is hoped to allow for changes and tweaks to the process in a timely enough manner so they can be absorbed by the sector for the next formal assessment.
For the current study, academics were asked to predict what types of research outputs they expect to produce over the coming years. The more traditional formats of journal articles, conference contributions, and in some disciplines, books, are expected to remain the most common kind of output. However, respondents also expect to start producing a wider variety of outputs as well, rising from an average of 4.7 types per person to 6.5 in the next decade.
Career progression appears to play a key role in the type of research output chosen. While a number of respondents indicated they would prefer to produce fewer journal articles and start producing a wider variety of content material, many worried this would hinder their careers. That’s because of the importance of journal articles in reward and recognition decisions, such as recruitment and promotion. To be sure there are other factors that shape the type of research output chosen, including personal preferences, institutional incentives, and funder requirements. Yet, career advancement appears to be the major driver of how research is presented.
The study also found there are significant differences in the forms of outputs produced within different disciplines. Researchers in the arts and humanities and social sciences are more likely to produce books, blogs, and podcasts than those in other disciplines, whereas more medicine, health, and mathematics researchers typically produce code and databases.
While the diversity of researcher outputs is expected to increase, workshop participants predict that how research is assessed is expected to largely remain the same. The study found that peer review is the predominant method for research assessment in the UK, and there is little expectation this will change. Advances in technology are expected to further support the overall peer review process, but will not on their own resolve some of the inherent limitations of peer review, such as equality and diversity. These issues will require further cultural changes within the research community.
So what does this all mean for national research assessment?
Although the study found no signs of any large or immediate shifts in the English research landscape, different kinds of output materials will need to be considered in the future. And while the future may also hold technological advances that might improve the peer review and research assessment process, in the short term, at least, there will need to be trade-offs: either enhancing understanding and improving the system through capturing more data, or reducing the burden on those involved.