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Charlotte Mathieson

A Culture of Publish or Perish? The Impact of the REF on Early Career Researchers

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By Charlotte Mathieson

This article aims to highlight some of the ways in which the REF has impacted upon early career researchers, using this as a spring-broad to think about how the next REF might better accommodate this career group.

In my role at the Institute of Advanced Study at the University of Warwick I work closely with a community of early career researchers and have experienced first-hand the many impacts that this REF has had on my peer group; but I wanted to ensure that this talk reflected a broader range of experiences across UK HE, and therefore in preparation I distributed an online survey asking ECRs about their experiences and opinions on the REF 2014.

Survey overview

– 193 responses collected between December 2014 and March 2015
– responses gathered via social media and email from across the UK
– 81.3 % had completed PhDs within the last 8 years
– 41.5 % were REF returned
– 18.7% were currently PhD students
– 10.9% had left academia since completing a PhD

5 main points emerged as most significant from among the responses:

  1. Provision of information about the REF to ECRs

I asked ECRs how well informed they felt about the REF, e.g. through training, university advice, or other sources.

Over 50% felt that they were well/moderately well informed, but 40% of respondents felt that they had little or no information. Those who felt ill-informed about the REF included both those ECRs who were returned  – and didn’t know why or to what effect – and others who were not submitted, because they were didn’t have enough outputs or were in a sessional or non-REFable position. Although information about the REF wasn’t deemed relevant to this second group, lack of understanding about the REF is nonetheless problematic for the career mobility of these groups.

Of the 25% who were very well informed, about a third of those noted excellent information provided at institutional level through training events, departmental discussions, and mentoring or other support. However, many were informed only through independent research: reading educational supplements such as THE, Union publications, and using social media to gather information.

There was also much noted about the lack of information specifically targeted at ECRs: some noted confusion, even at institutional level, as to how ECR was defined, or how the career-stage discount applied. This information was in the REF guidelines, but not especially accessible to ECRs: better institutional training around the particularities of ECR status is needed and, judging from many of the survey responses, this would significantly ease some of the uncertainty that this group face. [ note: see my REF for ECRs guide here]

As I mentioned in the Q&A, a clear issue that emerged to me throughout the surveys was the need for better communication, at every level: in the REF guidelines, at the level of university management, at departmental level, and between mentors/supervisors and ECRs themselves.

  1. Publication strategy

Publication strategy was the primary area ECRs felt the REF impact, and the main point to emerge from respondents was that, like other academics, ECRs are well aware of the need for strategic targeting of publication: focusing on those areas of research that have most strategic importance, aiming for 4* publication outlets, and holding back or rushing out publications to fit the REF cycle. ECRs have learnt to play the game.

However, some respondents noted strong concern that the value and quality of their research was becoming restricted within a narrow criteria that doesn’t allow for innovative pursuits, or that they were under pressure from supervisors or mentors to neglect areas of research that might otherwise be beneficial but that wouldn’t produce strong REF outputs. The issue of research restrictions seemed particularly troubling in the case of interdisciplinarity, towards which ECRs have otherwise been driven in recent years [although the subsequent  talk by Tim Hall aimed to dispell the ‘myth’ that the REF doesn’t accommodate interdisciplinarity].

  1. Job applications

The intense focus on publication had a huge impact on ECR job applications: among respondents there was an overwhelming sense of an increasingly competitive job market in which hiring committees focused on solely on REFable publications, creating the pressure to therefore be REF-able straight out of PhD. As a consequence, the REF dangerously intersects with the increasing trend towards casualization: un-REFable ECRs become stuck in a limbo of casualised contracts; but these precarious, short-term and typically teaching-heavy workloads further preclude having the time and resources to work towards 4* outputs that would get them better jobs

The casualization of ECRs is further exacerbated by the hiring cycles that the REF creates: long dry spells followed by a hiring spree. This can work in favour of those who finish PhDs at the right time in the REF cycle; but as several respondents made clear, even those hired for excellence are still at risk of the precarity of casual contracts, hired only for duration of the REF cycle and then let go when it’s over.

The connections between the REF and the casualization of HE seem, at least to ECRs, intricately bound up and this is perhaps the most troubling change it has driven in recent years.

  1. Cultural pressures

I also asked in the survey an open-ended question about any other impacts that the ECRs wanted to express, and this is where many noted the wider cultural shift in academia. ECRs overwhelmingly felt that the REF created a huge amount of pressure and anxiety which impacted particularly on those at the bottom rung of the career ladder. At departmental/ collegiate level many noted a culture of aggression and bullying, as well as the creation of a two-tier hierarchy between teaching and research which is used to inhibit career mobility of those in teaching positions. Comments about the effects on individuals’ mental health were prevalent: words such as ‘insecurity’, ‘pressure’, and ‘anxiety’ occurred numerous times throughout the survey responses. There was also a clear sense of a high level of disillusionment and dissatisfaction at the profession, and cynicism focused around the REF. In some respects, “the REF” has become a byword for a wider culture shift in academia – a shift driven by processes that extend beyond the assessment exercise itself – but it is nonetheless a focal point around which ECRs see very real, material impacts. If that is so, then perhaps with some work, the REF also has the potential to drive more positive changes in coming years.

One final point emerged about the potential positive of the REF:

  1. Public engagement and impact

68% of respondents felt that the REF had changed their attitude towards impact, and were thinking more about public engagement from an early stage of their research. While there have been problems raised with the measurement of impact, it is perhaps encouraging to see a trend shift in this direction coming from those starting out on their careers, and it is especially encouraging looking ahead to the REF2020: if the weighting of impact does (as expected) become more significant then ECRs will be well-placed to address this remit as they progress into the next stages their careers.

The original survey that I undertook in preparation for this talk is now closed, but my work on this topic is on-going and I would welcome further comments; please get in touch via email if you would be interested in participating in follow-up work.

Charlotte Mathieson is a Research Fellow in the Institute of Advanced Study at the University of Warwick. The original version of this article appeared on her personal blog site at and has been reproduced here with the author’s permission.

Author: SRHE News Blog

An international learned society, concerned with supporting research and researchers into Higher Education

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