The Stern Review – Publications, Portability, and Panic

Research Managers everywhere, earlier today.

The Stern Review on the future of the REF is out today, and there are any number of good summaries of the key recommendations that you can read. You could also follow the #sternreview hashtag on Twitter, or read it for yourself. It’s not particularly long, and it’s an easy read considering. The first point worth noting is that these are recommendations, not final policy, and they’re certainly nothing like a worked up final set of guidance notes for the next REF. I won’t repeat the summary, and I won’t add much on the impact issue, which Prof Mark Reed aka @fasttrackimpact has covered already.

The issue that has set twitter ablaze is that of portability – that is, which institution gets to return an academic’s publications when she moves from one institution to another. Under the old rules, there was full portability. So if Professor Portia Bililty moved from one institution to another in the final months of a REF cycle, all of her publications would come with her, and would all be returnable by her new employer. Her old employer lost all claim. Impact was different – that remained with the institution where it was created.

This caused problems. As the report puts it

72. There is a problem in the current REF system associated with the demonstrable increase in the number of individuals being recruited from other institutions shortly before the census date. This has costs for the UK HEI system in terms of recruitment and retention. An institution might invest very significantly in the recruitment, start up and future career of a faculty member, only to see the transfer market prior to REF drastically reduce the returns to that investment. This is a distortion to investment incentives in the direction of short-termism and can encourage rent-seeking by individuals and put pressure on budgets.

There was also some fairly grubby game-playing whereby big names from outside the UK were brought in on fractional contracts for their publications alone. To be fair, I’ve heard about places where this was done for other reasons, where these big names regularly attended their new fractional employer, helped develop research culture, mentored career young researchers and published articles with existing faculty. But let’s not pretend that happened everywhere.

So there’s a problem to be solved.

Stern’s response is to say that outputs – like impact – will no longer be portable.

73. We therefore recommend that outputs should be submitted only by the institution where the output was demonstrably generated. If individuals transfer between institutions (including from overseas) during the REF period, their works should be allocated to the HEI where they were based when the work was accepted for publication. A smaller maximum number of outputs might be permitted for the outputs of staff who have left an institution through retirement or to another HEI. Bearing in mind Recommendation 2, which recommends that any individual should be able to submit up to six outputs, a maximum of three outputs from those who have left the institution in the REF period would seem appropriate.
74. HEIs hiring staff during the REF cycle would be able to include them in their staff return. But they would be able to include only outputs by the individual that have been accepted for publication after joining the institution. Disincentivising short-term and narrowly-motivated movement across the sector, whilst still incentivising long-term investment in people will benefit UK research and should also encourage greater collaboration across the system.

I have to say that my first reaction to this will be extremely positive. The poaching and gameplaying were very dispiriting, and this just seems…. fairer.

However, looking at the Twitter reaction, the response was rather different. Concern was expressed that this would make it very difficult for researchers to move institutions, and it would make it especially difficult for early career researchers. I’ve been back and forth on this, and I’m no longer convinced that this is such a problem.

Let’s play Fantasy REF Manager 2020. It’s the start of the 2016/2017 season academic year. All of the existing publications from my squad of academics are mine to return, whatever happens to them and whatever career choices they make. Let’s say that one of my promising youth players  early career researchers gets an offer for elsewhere. I can try to match or beat whatever offer she has, but whatever happens, my team gets credit for the publications she’s produced. Let’s say that she moves on, and I want to recruit a replacement, and I identify the person I want. He’s got some great publications which he can’t bring with him… but I don’t need them, because I’ve got those belonging to his predecessor. Of course, I’d be very interested in track record, but I’m appointing entirely on potential. His job is to pick up where she left off.

Might recruiting on potential actually work in favour of early career researchers? Under the old system, if I were a short termist manager, I’d probably favour the solid early-mid career plodder who can bring me a number of guaranteed, safe publications, rather than someone who is much longer on promise but shorter on actual published publications. Might it also bring an end to the system where very early career researchers were advantaged just by having *any* bankable publications that had actually appeared?

I wonder if some early career researchers are so used to a system where they’re (unfairly) judged by the sole criterion of potential REF contribution that they’re imagining a scenario where they – and perhaps they alone – are being prevented from using the only thing that makes them employable. Institutions with foresight and with long term planning have always recruited on the basis of potential and other indicators and factors beyond the REF, and this change may force more of them to do that.

However, I can see a few problems that I might have as Fantasy REF Manager. The example above presumed one-in, one-out. But what if I want to increase the size of my squad through building new areas of specialism, or put together an entirely new School or Research Group? This might present more of a problem, because it’ll take much longer for me to see any REF benefits in exchange for my investment. However, rival managers would argue that the old rules meant I could do an academic-Chelsea or academic-Manchester City, and just buy all those REF benefits straight away. And that doesn’t feel right.

Another problem might be if I was worried about returning publications from people who have left. What image to it give to the REF panel if more than a certain small percentage of your returned publications are from researchers who’ve left? Would it make us look like we were trading on past glories, while in fact we’d deteriorated rapidly? Perhaps some guidance to the panels that they’re to take no account of this in assessing submissions would help here, and a clear signal that a good publication by a researcher-past has the same value as researcher-current.

Does the new system give me as the Fantasy REF Manager too much power over my players, early career or not? I’m not sure. It’s true that I have their publications in the bag, so they can’t threaten me with taking them away. But I’m still going to want to keep them on my team if I think they’re going to continue to produce work of that standard that I want in the future. If I don’t think that – for whatever reason – then I’ve no reason to want to keep them. They can still hold me to ransom, but what they’re holding over me is their future potential, not recent past glories. And to me, that seems more like an appropriate correction in the balance of power. Though… might any discrimination be more likely to be against career elderly researchers who I think are winding down? Not sure.

Of course, there are compromise positions between full portability and no portability. Perhaps a one or two year window of portability, and perhaps longer for early career researchers… though that might give some too great an advantage. That would be an improvement on the status quo, and might assuage some worries that a lot of ECRs (judging by my timeline on Twitter, anyway) have at the moment.

Even with a window, there are potential problems around game-playing. Do researchers looking for a move hold off from submitting their papers? Might they filibuster corrections and final changes? Might editors be pressurised to delay formal acceptances? Are we clear what constitutes a formal date of acceptance (open access experience suggests not)? And probably most seriously, might papers “under review” rather than papers published be the new currency?

Probably the last point is what worries me most, but I think these are relatively small issues, and I’d be worried if hiring decisions were based on such small margins. But perhaps they are.

This article is entirely knee-jerk. I’m making it up as I go along, changing my mind, being influenced. But I think that ECRs have less to worry about than many fear, and I think my tentative view is that limiting portability – either entirely, or with a narrow window – is significantly better than the current situation of unlimited portability. But I may have missed something, and I’m open to convincing.

Please feel free to tell me what I’ve missed in the comments, or tweet me.

UPDATE: 29th July AM

I’ve been following the discussion on Twitter with some interest, and I’ve been reflecting on whether or not there’s a particular issue for early career researchers. As I said earlier, I’ve been going backwards and forwards on this. Martin Eve has written an excellent post in which he argues that some of the concern may be because

“the current hiring paradigm is so geared towards REF and research it can be hard to imagine what a new hiring environment looks like”

He also makes an important point about ownership of IP, which a lot of academics don’t seem to understand.

Athene Donald has written a really interesting post in which she describes “egregious examples” of game-playing which she’s seen first hand, and anyone who doesn’t think this is a serious issue needs to read this. She also draws much-needed attention to a major benefit of the proposals – that returning everyone and having returning nx2 publications does away with all of the personal circumstances exceptions work required last time to earn the right to submit fewer than four outputs – this is difficult and time consuming for institutions, and potentially distressing for individuals. She also echoes Martin Eve’s point about some career young researchers not being able to think into a new paradigm yet by recalling her long experience of REFs and RAEs.

However, while I do – on the whole – think that some early career researchers are overreacting, perhaps not understanding that the game changes for everyone, and that appointments are now on potential, not on recent publishing history. And that this might benefit them as I argued above.

Having said that, I am now persuaded that there are good arguments for an exception to the portability rules for ECRs. My sense is that there’s a fair amount of mining and developing the PhD for publications that could be done, but after that, there has to come a stage of moving on to the next thing, adding new strings to the bow, and that that might in principle be a less productive time in terms of publishing. And although I think at least some ECR worries are misplaced, if what I’m reading on Twitter is representative, I think there’s a case for taking them seriously and doing something to assuage those fears with an exemption or limited exemption. There’s a lot that’s positive about the Stern Review, but I think the confidence of the ECR community is important in itself.

Some really interesting issues have been raised that relate to detail and to exceptions and which would have to be ironed out later, but are worth consideration. Can an institution claim the publications of a teaching fellow? (I’d argue no). What happens to publications accepted when the author has two fractional (and presumably temporary) contracts? (I’d argue they can’t be claimed, certainly not if the contract is sessional). What if the author is unemployed?

One argument I’ve read a few times is that there’s a strong incentive for institutions to hire from within, rather than from without. But I’m not clear why that is – in my example above, I already have any publications from internal candidates, whether or not I make an internal appointment. I can’t have the publications of anyone from outside – so it’s a case of the internal candidates future publications (plus broader contribution, but let’s take that as read) versus the external candidate’s. I think that sounds like a reasonably level playing field, but perhaps I’m missing something. I suppose I wouldn’t have to return publications of someone who’s left if I make an internal appointment, but if there’s no penalty (formal or informal) for this, why should I – as Fantasy REF Manager -care? If there were portability, I’d be choosing between the internal’s past and potential, and the external’s past and potential. That might change my calculations, depending on those publications – though actually if the internal’s publications were co-authored with existing faculty I might not mind if they go. So…. yes, there is a whole swamp of unintended consequences here, but I’m not sure whether allowing ECR portability helps any.

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