What’s in a star?

On Thursday I chaired the last of the mock REF panels bringing to close the first of two summative mock exercises we are running in the final year of REF preparation before the big submission a year from now.  In fact in about 12 months it will be all done, game over with nothing to do but wait a year for the results.  In many ways I am looking forward to that point so that we can focus our energies elsewhere, but in the meantime we are in the final push.  It is also this phase of the process that causes most anxiety for staff since it is the year in which ones’ outputs are held up to close scrutiny, graded and selected for final submission.  The processes by which this is done are set out in the BU Codes of Practice for REF.  But one can’t escape from the fact that having ones’ research outputs scrutinized and discussed is not for some a pleasant process.  I share this with you since my own outputs are part of the process to.

Feedback from the mock on an individual’s outputs is being provided by the UoA Leader following the assessment panel and I have heard some cries of annoyance, anguish and anger as that feedback has been given.  I know for a fact that many staff are disappointed to only have outputs graded at 1* or 2* and have taken this as demotivating and in some cases as an insult to all their hard work and endeavour.  I feel for you all, some of my own outputs have been graded no more than 2*.  But it is worth reflecting on just what that actually means.

According to REF-2014 criteria 1* equates to work ‘that is recognized nationally in terms of originality, significance and rigour’.  You can’t escape from the fact that to have nationally recognized work is something to be proud of.  Equally the 2* criteria states that the output ‘is recognized internationally in terms of originality, significance and rigour’ to have work graded as such should also be no disappointment.  To get something rated at 4* requires it to be ‘world-leading’ and only papers which are literally the ‘best of the best’ are going to get such a grading.  So while it might be disappointing to only have work graded at 1* or 2* no one should be disappointed in such an outcome; easy to say and very much the truth, but I do understand that people may feel disappointed none the less.

I suppose the question that this begs in many peoples minds is what quality threshold will we apply for the submission?  The honest answer is that I don’t know yet and I certainly would not be disclosing our tactics on an open blog!  It is something that our REF Academic Steering Group will consider in detail this year before a decision is made in the spring as set out in the BU Codes of Practice.  There is a trade-off between submitting a small selection of outputs of the highest quality and submitting a wider selection, and consequently more staff, which says something more balanced about our research.  The current funding algorithm only funds the part of our quality profile that is 3* or above, but in truth the funding algorithm which will follow the results of REF-2014 won’t be announced until the spring of 2015 and will be informed by the next compressive spending review in 2014 and the REF-2014 results due out in December of that year.  In short your guess is as good as mine!  I have always said that our submission is about ‘glory not gold’ and is therefore about enhancing our reputation first and foremost rather than about money.

In the meantime don’t be put off by the having outputs rated at 1* or 2* star, be proud to be part of the process, to be publishing and creating new knowledge which is lets face it a fantastic feeling!

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