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.


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.