Fixing Stern

Now that we’ve had a few weeks to get used to the Stern recommendations for the next Research Excellence Framework, some of its underlying principles look immovable. I considered these in my last piece on Stern; it looks like we’re heading for an ‘everyone-in’ REF, and portability looks dead. I expect that too many powerful interests will be supporting those, and other, recommendations.

But I also think there are flaws that need fixing – and they can be fixed.


The Early-Career Researcher dilemma

I work at a university that makes temporary appointments every year. We make permanent appointments whenever we have recurrent income to support them, but temporary contracts remain a basic fact of life. Many ECRs will experience several years of temporary contracts – perhaps interspersed with unemployment – before achieving permanency. Stern’s recommendations, as Kirsty Rolfe has eloquently outlined, are hugely destabilizing to people currently in this position.

Indeed following Stern’s recommendation to the letter, a publication by an ECR will be returnable by the university s/he was at when it was contracted. As a result, I could be on the phone in 2019, tracking down all the bright young things we have employed over the years, asking them very politely for copies of their book contracts.

Will that be embarrassing? No, it will be way beyond that. How could we argue that our level of ‘investment’ in these careers warrants such a dividend? And of course this embarrassment multiplies in the case of teaching-only appointments. Stern’s report barely grasps the fact that these exist as a starting-level job for many ECRs.

And let’s not forget that some of these people may not have landed the permanent jobs they deserve in the interim – in part because they will have blown their best post-PhD shots on a temporary employer like mine. Yeh, those people will be happy to hear from me.

But surely there’s a simple answer; indeed it seems so obvious I can’t really believe it needs saying. Any publication contracted while the author is on a temporary contract should remain portable, while temporary people in post at the census date may be submitted as in the past. There are universities that might lose a little from that – notably those that fund a lot of junior research fellowships – but I can’t see how anyone could dispute the ethics of it.


‘The dog ate my book contract’: or a note on portability

The recommendation against portability of outputs changes the dynamics of the job-market; I’ve commented on this before. But even if we accept this principle, one practicality that still looks in need of a fix is the recommendation that a publication ‘belongs’ to the university at which the researcher was based when the contract was signed. The principle here is that the REF should recognize the investment made by universities; however, in practice we could get some silly and counter-productive results.

Let’s just say (and this is a common enough scenario in the humanities) that I get offered a publishing contract in the next few weeks for a monograph that may not be finished until 2020. And let’s also say I’m also looking for a new job. Who’s going to pay me to finish a project for my old employer?

As a result, I expect we might find rather a lot of contracts being eaten by dogs. ‘Please, Oxford University Press, can you send me a new one, maybe dated 2017?’ Or: ‘how about we change the terms a bit – even cut my royalties – and call it a freshly negotiated contract?’

There’s a solution. We could retain the principle of Stern, but use publication dates rather than dates of contracts. That’s still a profound change from the present system, but seems to me slightly more flexible and infinitely more feasible. I also rather suspect it will happen. Stern’s recommendation has the whiff of an ambit-claim: like, give the critics some ground on the method, while the principle glides through unscathed.


A comment on rent-seeking

rent-seeking   n. Econ. the fact or process of seeking to gain larger profits by manipulating public policy or economic conditions, esp. by means of securing beneficial subsidies or tariffs, making a product artificially scarce (OED)

There’s a streak of moralism running through the Stern report, directed against high-achieving academics who choose to move between institutions or seek pay-increases on the eve of a REF. This, Stern says, is ‘rent-seeking behaviour’.

All I can say is that some of these things are not as simple as they might look. I came from Australia to Leeds in 1999 (on the eve of RAE 2000) for a three-year job, then moved almost immediately for a better job at Exeter. Was that ‘rent-seeking behaviour’? What it felt like was being an ECR looking for a position that gave me job-security and a salary commensurate with my research record. I expect that a lot of cases of ‘rent-seeking’, ‘poaching, and what have you – all terms coined by disgruntled employers – might similarly be positioned as quite reasonable acts of career-advancement.

So Stern ditches meritocracy for austerity-speak labour-market constriction. Actually, I think Stern will win on this one, and we will have as a result a less open and flexible university system, which also in due course becomes less competitive internationally. (See Timothy Devinney’s excellent piece on this.) So on this point I don’t see an easy fix; however, I’d certainly suggest it would be worth thinking about ways of moderating the message. Across the country, and across the world, researchers are listening to this stuff.

One thought on “Fixing Stern

  1. In my experience, a book publishing contract is not an acceptance of publication – as you say, the book still has to be written, and this is something that can elapse over a long time.

    In fact, without actually digging out old contracts, I am sure that all the book contracts I have signed are quite clear that publication is still at the discretion of the publisher, even after completion (in the eyes of the author), and is not at all certain until the book has been completed and entered a process of editorial review. The date the contract was signed seems to be a minor detail in the process of completing the work.

    Stern’s recommendations refer to the kind of ‘contracting’ that is specific to acceptance by a journal, where you would sign the agreement AFTER the peer-review process has been completed.

    I’ll give you a concrete example of how unfair the recommendations on portability can be, related specifically to an academic taking a career break.

    Until mid-2015 I was an academic at an English university in a Humanities department. But in my last year, I – and other academic staff – was told that as part of a new Research Centre strategy leading up to REF 2020, staff who focused their research activity books as their research outputs would no longer receive any research support, in terms of workload allowances and so on. Staff could, of course, continue to work towards publishing books, but for the sake of internal REF preparations and the allocation of research resources, only those working on – or towards – externally funded projects would be classed as ‘research active’.

    Indeed, I spent much of my non-teaching time after REF 2014 before I left, being cajoled into working on bids and projects with colleagues in other faculties, because they, for instance, they ‘needed someone with your abilities’ …

    This also coincided with the belief, in 2014, that books were going to be problematic in REF 2020 because of Open Access requirements.

    As a result this, and other factors, I left that university and academia. Since I left I have published one book, and another – which I left my previous university specifically to be able to finish working on – will be published later this year. I have also published several chapters in the post-REF 2014 period while I was still employed at the university. Yet if Stern’s recommendations on portability are to be taken at face value, an institution that did not in any meaningful way support my work, will still be able to claim some kind of ownership of it – in particular, of the two books whose creation they were dead set against.

    Where is the logic, or fairness in that? I sacrificed my career and a salary for the sake of MY work, but I somehow don’t own it!!

    And what if I now want to return to academia after taking a career break for a year?

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