Research, researchers and the job market: thoughts on Stern

Plenty of positive things have already been said about Nicholas Stern’s review of the REF. In a summer of uncertainty, Stern has provided continuity, notably in his commitment Sterntp3to peer review and the fundamental value of publications. If the report’s recommendations are accepted, the REF will remain an exercise broadly underpinned by academic perceptions of research quality.

But there are also recommendations that will alter relationships between research, individuals and departments. They could also have a significant impact on the job market, particularly in humanities subjects. The impact won’t necessarily be bad; indeed Stern clearly intends to fix some perceived problems. Yet it’s worth thinking through precisely how they would affect us.


We’re all in it together

Recommendation 1: All research active staff should be returned in the REF

The principle of universal inclusion is powerful; I like it. But Stern’s intention, here and elsewhere, is to privilege the department as a unit of research activity over the individual as a sole producer. Hence his further proposal that, while all research-active staff are submitted, some people may submit many items (maybe up to six) and others no items at all. The average (probably two items per researcher) is what will matter.

How would these proposals affect us? At some places there will be increased pressure to push people onto non-research contracts. That’s not necessarily the case, since we will still have one eye on the multiplier effect for QR funding calculations; however, for departments just seeking some respectability in league tables while focusing largely on teaching, it will probably happen.

Meanwhile, decisions about workloads and distribution of resources (including research leave) will be interesting. Ditto advice – and contractual requirements, for some of us – concerning the quality and quantity of outputs. For years I’ve argued that the only thing that really matters, when hiring or promoting, is a researcher’s capacity to produce four-star work. Maybe now I win that argument.

I also think there’s reason to think very carefully about the report’s proposal to abolish ‘special circumstances’. Stern suggests that these will come out in the wash once we shift the focus from individuals to departments; departments will adjust expectations across a group and muddle through. This is to think very clearly from the perspective of an administrative system, but not at all from the perspective of an individual researcher. For many people – and more women than men – the system of special circumstances has been perceived as clear and supportive. Sweeping special circumstances under the carpet cannot be equivalent to a credible equality and diversity policy.


You can’t take those outputs with you

Recommendation 3: Outputs should not be portable

A year ago, I lamented that we can’t take impact case-studies with us when we move jobs; now Stern is proposing that we won’t take publications either. In fact he’s taken a step further: the report proposes an output should belong, for REF purposes, to the university where the researcher was employed when s/he signed a contract for its publication.

The principle here is crucial. Thinking (as Stern consistently does) from the perspective of the institution, research outputs represent returns on investments. It is therefore unjust if these outputs occasionally get carried off to another university in the months before a REF deadline. Moreover, as we all know, such moves can distort both the job market and internal pay differentials.

Well, maybe, but this is to set aside the powerful connection that researchers feel with their publications. It is also to remove one of the key sources of power that academics currently have in negotiations over pay. Whether we like it or not, this recommendation would substantially alter that balance of power, and rewrite equations of ‘market-worth’. I’ll also be curious to see, if this proposal is accepted, whether this shift has an effect on motivation, and hence academics’ famed willingness to work unpaid overtime.

The details are equally important. The focus on the date a contract is signed looks to me like Stern’s committee didn’t talk much to researchers in the humanities. I think I’m right in saying that the period between the signing of a contract and the date of publication is much shorter in the sciences than the humanities. Even humanities journal articles can sit in queues for two or three years. And the report seems entirely unaware that some of the most REF-valuable humanities publications – monographs or (in my discipline) critical editions – may be contracted years before they are completed, let alone published.

So consider the effect on the job market. That old interview chestnut, ‘Is your monograph contracted?’, takes on radically new meaning. Somebody who is committed to a pipeline of publications, in a way that last week looked sensibly professional, may now look much less attractive. Can it really be right that I could spend my first three years at a new university being paid to finish work for my old employer? And do we really think this will end ‘game-playing’? Surely we’ll just end up with different kinds of games.

And then there are the blindingly obvious problems presented by early-career researchers. Who owns that first monograph, that might currently win someone a first permanent job? The current REF rules actually work fine for productive ECRs: it makes sense for universities to employ them. This aspect of the report looks very odd, and really should be fixable.


And big is better

These proposals are better news for bigger departments. For a big department that has always aimed for 100% submission anyway, these changes will be easy enough to manage. My immediate response to reading the report was to take an evening off. But if you’re in a smaller department, perhaps with a low submission rate in 2014, perhaps with a number of people who might reasonably claim ‘special circumstances’, the next REF will today look significantly more challenging.

9 thoughts on “Research, researchers and the job market: thoughts on Stern

  1. While, as a job hunting EC academic this post – and all thoughts and advice from within departments – are appreciated, there is much to be clarified. In particular there were a few points here I found confusing. For example:
    1. “How would these proposals affect us? At some places there will be increased pressure to push people onto non-research contracts. That’s not necessarily the case, since …” doesn’t make sense to me. Perhaps I’m dense but I’d sure find it easier to understand if re-worded!
    2. The sentence beginning with typo “It it”. The meaning can be entirely flipped depending on actual intent. If it? It is? Is it?

    Again, this is a hugely appreciated post and all input from active senior academics, particularly those making hiring decisions, are enthusiastically welcome. I’ll quote a nugget that speaks to me in particular that is right on the money: “I could spend my first three years at a new university being paid to finish work for my old employer?” Yet I also think it would be even better if the advice here was clearer. Thanks for your time.

    • 1. Apologies for this: it’s rather assuming a depth of immersion in REFs of old, and also trying to keep within 1000 words (which I impose as a strict limit on myself). One of the big debates in the run-up to the last REF went along the lines: what’s more important, league-table position or income? In other words, by submitting only high-performing researchers, departments could increase their average score, and hence maximize league-table position. (In fact, some league tables unexpectedly chose to use the ‘research power’ measure instead, which rather buggered up the calculations, but you can see the point.) Others decided to take a risk on some of the lower-performing people in order to have a higher multiplier effect (since quality-related income, distributed by the REF, is calculated on the basis of unit of resource multiplied by the number of people submitted). So these departments might have been placed lower than some rivals in the league tables, but have earned more QR money, year by year until the next REF.
      Hence the question now: what might happen if it is compulsory to submit all research-active staff? And hence the thought that, if a department was keen to focus on league-table position, one way of hiding lower-performing staff would be by flipping them onto non-research contracts. Of course this can happen anyway, but the new rules might conceivably be used as a lever to push that process along in some instances. That’s just speculation; I wouldn’t see it happening in my own department, but I could imagine a manager somewhere else reaching this conclusion.
      2. Ok, typo corrected: ‘It is’.
      Thanks for reading.

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