REF isn’t a ranking

The ASA steps in to reprimand a university for claiming to be "number 1"

David Kernohan is Acting Editor of Wonkhe

A tweeted claim made by the University of Leicester:

We’re number 1! Our Arts and Humanities research is number 1 in the UK for overall research quality (GPA) in #REF2021

has been censured by the Advertising Standards Agency (ASA) following a complaint made by a former academic. The ASA judged the tweet breached rules on misleading advertising, substantiation, qualifications, and comparisons with identifiable comparators.

The reasoning is simple – the Research Excellence Framework does not rank universities, either generally or within subject areas. Though some claim to have calculated rankings based on a grade point average these are not a formal part of REF – a claim that Leicester had topped a media league table would have been onside had there actually been a league table for “arts and humanities”.

The ASA report notes that Leicester calculated their own GPA-based league table based closely on methodology used in the media. The arguments made about a basis in a “reputable” ranking fell flat:

We noted the REF 2021 results did not formally rank universities, and therefore there were different ways that institutions could be ranked depending on the methodology chosen. The basis of the comparative “number 1” claim had not been clarified in the ad, nor was there a means of verification provided. It did not state that the ranking had been generated by the University itself using the THE’s methodology rather than a finding explicitly stated in the REF 2021 report, nor otherwise explain how the result was deduced.

It is unwise, clearly, to confuse the REF with a league table on someone’s website. If you are going to do this, it is probably best to be clear rather than claim that the ranking was a judgement made within the REF process.

We had neither seen the University’s calculations, nor a full explanation of how the methodology accounted for the University submitting data across fewer arts and humanities subjects in the REF 2021 than other institutions, and therefore we were unable to comment on those findings. However, given the likely interpretation by consumers of the “number 1” claim, and in the absence of evidence to support that interpretation or a clear and prominent qualification to explain its basis, we concluded the ad was likely to mislead.

As many have noted most universities do claim to be “number 1” in something – whether these claims actually impress anyone is perhaps a moot point – but it is clear that if you are going to make these claims you need to be very careful in how you make them.

One response to “REF isn’t a ranking

  1. Perhaps someone should let the ASA know that REF doesn’t stand for “Research Effectiveness Framework”…

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