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Martin Paul Eve

Professor of Literature, Technology and Publishing at Birkbeck, University of London

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There has been a lot of angst about the newly proposed non-portability requirements for REF2021 and beyond, particularly from ECRs. I want to say upfront that I do not want to disparage such worries; I speak from a position of privilege, having a permanent position even though I am, by RCUK standards, myself an Early-Career Researcher. I do, though, want to set out why I think these fears are misplaced/over-blown.

Context

The non-portability proposals are a product of the Stern review of REF. One of the over-arching themes of this review was to make REF more about the institutional research environment, rather than about individual researcher performance. The question that the Stern review wants to address is: how can we measure and reward institutions that create an environment that lets its staff produce good research? This means avoiding things like a transfer market for publications (so universities can’t just buy in their outputs from superstar researchers at the last minute) and stopping universities who have invested in staff losing those outputs at the last minute (because the staff are poached). This would lead to universities not only being more productive but also better places to work for their staff, who should be supported.

Non-portability is supposed to address these two elements. It stops a poaching spree by wealthy universities because no institution can hire in order to gain outputs. It encourages institutions to invest in their existing staff because the only outputs they can submit are the ones created by staff who are at the institution when the work was created.

The proposed implementation

Yesterday morning, David Sweeney of HEFCE and soon Research England, published a blog post opening a dialogue on the implementation of non-portability for REF2021. The interim measures proposed are that, for this cycle, both institutions can take credit for outputs where a researcher moves and/or a date cutoff (the latter is more complex). This hybrid approach encourages universities to begin thinking about how they will record outputs created where a researcher leaves but also ensures that universities aren’t to be penalized for not having known this in advance. It is also coupled with a proposal that the minimum number of outputs required from researchers should be lowered to one.

ECR worries

There are a range of fears from ECRs that I summarize as:

  1. If I cannot take my outputs with me, nobody will hire me.
  2. If I am on a series of short-term contracts, these outputs will be lost.
  3. If I move jobs at the end of a cycle, I will have to reproduce all new REF outputs.
  4. Internal hiring will become more prevalent.
  5. This will spark more short-term, precarious, and/or teaching-only contracts.
  6. Books and other long-form outputs will be lost/not counted.

I will address these one-by-one.

Lost outputs

What is meant by “lost” here? From a hiring perspective, under non-portability rules, we will never be looking to hire a researcher so that we can have his/her publications. We will, instead, be looking for people with a solid track-record of publications that demonstrate that, if we hire them, they will be able to produce REF-able outputs at our institution.

This is the most fundamental shift that has to be kept in mind when thinking about non-portability: the whole hiring system is different. We cannot hire you to have your outputs. We will not expect to hire anyone in order to have their outputs. REF audit procedures would go ballistic if we attempted this.

On the contrary, outputs still go on one’s CV, regardless of where they were produced, and demonstrate the ability to produce good research. This will lead to hireability. See below, though, on “reproducing outputs” for the effect this will have on the hiring cycle and “books and long-form outputs” for the challenges faced by some media.

A series of short-term contracts

Outputs that are produced over the course of several short-term contracts will likely be split between institutions (see below on books and long-form outputs for the challenges here); certainly at least for this REF.

As above, there is no sense in which such outputs are “lost”, it is merely that one cannot be hired (under any circumstances) to “use” outputs for REF.

Reproducing REF outputs

Another argument is that, if one moves at any point in a cycle, one will have to reproduce all of one’s REF items.

In one sense, this is true. If you move jobs, you will need outputs for REF that were produced at the new institution. However, this has been reduced to a minimum of one output in light of new staff selectivity criteria. In this sense, then, a hiring panel will have to decide what a reasonable quantitative expectation should be for newly appointed staff given the time left within any census window.

It also, though, means that institutions will change their hiring patterns. Since outputs are non-portable (from the REF after next), there is no point in having a last-minute hiring spree to buy in research outputs. Instead, institutions will shift hiring to the beginning of a cycle and aim to retain staff (although see below on short-term contracts). This should have a beneficial effect on how staff are treated since if they do not produce outputs because the environment is hostile to research, then there will be nothing to show for REF.

An increase in internal hiring

Some people with whom I spoke voiced concern about an increase in internal hiring practices as a result of changes to the portability of outputs.

I am not convinced this is true, since institutions can keep the outputs whether the staff are retained or not. If they can demonstrate that that outputs were supported by staff while at their university, it makes no difference whether staff leave for the submissibility of outputs. I think that “wanting the best candidate” will outweigh any internal favouritism, but this is just speculation. I cannot see a reason, though, why an internal candidate would be preferable.

More short-term, precarious, and/or teaching-only contracts

There is something to this one. If outputs are submissible whether staff remain at the institution or not, then what is the incentive for universities to retain such staff?

I can see the logic here but there is also a counter-logic: universities want to hire the best people. If they only offer a short-term contract when someone could get an open-ended contract elsewhere, then they will lose out on those staff members.

There are also other increasing pressures on institutions around short-term and teaching-only contracts; particularly coming from TEF. Given how bad the situation is already with these contracts, but taking these counter-logics into account, I am still not persuaded that non-portability will worsen an already-bad setup.

Books and other long-form outputs

This is not technically an ECR-only issue, but it does affect ECRs. The question is: what, then, about books that are produced either from a Ph.D. thesis or as a result of work across multiple institutions? Sweeney’s above proposal provides a clue for how this might be handled (although this is by no means set in stone): both institutions could take the credit if they both contributed or it could be an apportioned percentage of credit. This would provide an incentive to hire an ECR who has a Ph.D. that could be transformed into a first book.

There is a legitimate concern here: what about those who have already produced books from their theses? In a double-credit system, such ECRs could be disadvantaged if they were at an interview against someone who was on the cusp of a book or someone who has held a book back. This needs further thought since the process of transforming a book from a PhD is often not trivial and can take time, requiring institutional investment. A solution here could be to make the first books derived from a Ph.D. portable. Does this apply only to ECRs, though? Not necessarily; long-form outputs in general pose a more difficult problem and the basic need is to stop people “holding back” outputs by disincentivizing this at hiring panels while also ensuring that no undue time pressure is placed upon academics producing these outputs that take more time.

Another way around this could be to have a “blacklist period” of a year or so after moving institution, where outputs are deemed to have been produced at the institution before. Again, this introduces complexity of implementation, though, and there is no guarantee, given the huge lead-times for both writing and publication of monographs, that this would help.

Finally, the other disincentive here that could be used is that, if the credit is somehow split between institutions, then holding back the book would be worth far less for a future institution. REF could also ask institutions to report on how often they have split credit by hiring someone with a partial book outfit and compare this/benchmark it across the sector to spot those gaming. But this all entails extra burden/administrative pain and would not, I suspect, be terribly well received.

Conclusions

In all, the changed procedures for hiring seem, to me, to alter what it means to produce outputs for REF. In the brave new world of non-portability, one cannot be hired for outputs – and this goes for everyone. Outputs are not “lost”, they just cannot be used by a new institution. This means that the hiring cycle will likely change. There is, though, still some lingering doubt about long-form outputs and how to avoid the “I have this in the pipeline” claim at an interview.

HEFCE’s goal, as stated by HEFCE’s Steven Hill at an event last year, was to come up with a scenario where researchers were inventivized to “publish good work, when it was ready”. In other words: to publish good work, without thinking about the REF, and then to assess the institutions.

At the moment, I think most of the non-portability requirements are pretty good and encourage this. The one where I still think more work is required is in terms of holding back research outputs for interviews, especially where, as with monographs, there could be a sound excuse for so doing.

Again, I do not dismiss ECR concerns here. I just do not think that non-portability is so apocalyptic, for the above reasons. That said, I acknowledge that it is probably easier to say this when one is not at the sharp end of the proverbial wedge.