Why REF matters to us all
Rita Marcella gives ten compelling reasons why research evaluation
is important for the library and information community as a whole, arguing that the value of LIS knowledge must be highlighted to
The Research Excellence Framework (REF) is the UK government’s periodic system for assessing the excellence of research in higher education institutions.
Research evaluation has been happening for many years and has gone through numerous changes in that time. It sits alongside the assessment of teaching quality (through TEF – the Teaching Excellence Framework), where universities are asked to demonstrate that they are delivering strong programmes, attuned to the needs of employers and meeting the needs of students. Both are important, for without excellent teaching we arguably serve no purpose in preparing students to deliver an important role in society, and without excellent research we are not stretching the minds of our students and preparing them to contribute to the creation of new knowledge.
Both TEF and REF assess the contribution that our discipline can make to the world as we know it: they are also opportunities for us to communicate the genuine and very significant contribution that libraries and information science can make in achieving “an effect on, change or benefit to the economy, society, culture, public policy or services, health, the environment or quality of life, beyond academia”.1
You may be asking yourself, why should I be interested in this fairly abstract and bureaucratic process? Below I set out ten reasons why research matters to all of us in library and information science: there are many more reasons but Dewey-like I arbitrarily chose a good number to begin.
Why research matters to us all
1. As librarians and information scientists our discipline is committed to facilitating access by all to high quality information and excellent research sits at the core of high quality information.
2. The CILIP goal is ‘to put information and library skills and professional values at the heart of a democratic, equal and prosperous society’ and excellent research will build knowledge of how the skills we possess contribute to achieving a democratic society. My own research has for 25 years focussed on how people interact with information in order to make decisions and make sense of their world. It is a challenge that continues as our most recent research into people’s conception of the veracity of facts presented as part of a political campaign shows. Even in a world where people live in an apparently ‘richer’ information environment than ever before, they may struggle more than they are aware to filter, evaluate, select and respond to the information with which they are provided.
3. Information and its use has never had a higher profile in society than it does at present. We are at a point in time in LIS when we have the potential to contribute to the widest range of discourses, for there is no field of human endeavour where information does not matter. Try to think of one and you simply can’t. However there is a danger implicit in being able as a discipline to contribute to all others – and that is that as a discipline you become lost in the mix. We become so ‘embedded’, so subordinate, so service oriented, that we no longer have a purpose of our own. That is a wholly bad thing in research terms and I have a sense sometimes that we are losing sight of our own core principles. As a discipline we need to come together to remind ourselves what these are and to set out what they should be for the future.
4. Our discipline is facing real challenges too. We are often underfunded, we have to compete for scarce resources, we have become part of other departments and functions. We know that we are often overlooked, sometimes regarded as less ‘serious’ or significant than other subjects. We know our true worth but we need to be able to express and communicate that in a world where metrics are all. Whether a practitioner or an academic we have to demonstrate outcomes and impact and it is my view that we can work together to better demonstrate the impact of information on individuals, organisations, cultures and societies. We need to communicate the contribution that information access can make to health, education, economic prosperity, creativity, relaxation, happiness and the sum of human knowledge.
5. Ultimately REF success equates directly with research funding both in direct grant but also in raising the profile of the departments, schools and universities in which we are situated. Without funding and students, the discipline will die in universities in the UK. We are in some danger currently as a discipline. While we in LIS research often outperformed our institutions in REF 2014, because we are small departments on the whole the funding achieved is often fairly negligible and insubstantial. Student numbers in terms of applications have declined steadily over the decades since I first became a lecturer, and “funds follow numbers” has always been the mantra in HE. We need to address as a discipline the need to remotivate young people to be interested in LIS careers: this doesn’t just matter to the universities, it is hugely significant to the profession as a whole. One of the ways in which we can do this is by recognising the value of and celebrating our research together as a profession.
6. The research evaluation methodology that is currently adopted assesses: (i) the quality of public outputs produced by staff of universities in subjects grouped into Units of Assessment; (ii) the university environment and the degree to which it resources, supports and invests in research; and (iii) the impact of the university’s research through case studies which show that the research impacts upon society (of which more in 7 below). The first two of these depend very much upon the efforts of the universities and our commitment to continuing to carry out high quality internationally recognised research. It is important that we continue to do so and to an extent we rely on the continuing focus on quality of our disciplinary journals in doing so.
7. More significantly for the wider profession though, in 2014 the concept of research impact became a core aspect by which our research was measured. REF 2014 defined impact as “an effect on, change or benefit to the economy, society, culture, public policy or services, health, the environment or quality of life, beyond academia”.1 The emphasis on this impact being categorically “beyond academia” is vitally important here. This is not about being cited by other researchers or asked to give a keynote at an academic conference. It is about your research being used by others – in practice, in policy formulation, in organisational changes, in enhancing people’s lives. In order to demonstrate impact, case studies must be submitted that provide evidence that excellent research is having an impact and being used by others. Here we in academia must be able to evidence that our research translates into practice – and we need documentable evidence. This collation of evidence we could and must work better with the whole professional community to achieve.
8. For the first time ever, REF 2014 acknowledged the importance of consultancy research which is funded by research users because the results will actually be applied by those organisations commissioning the research. Previously research assessment exercises had been quite dismissive of such research as not “blue sky” or theoretical enough. This is a real opportunity for LIS again, for us to work together to produce research outputs that align both academics research interests and the needs of practitioners for research which will enable them to achieve their own agendas. Collaborative research with professions and industry will be key to ensuring excellent impact in 2021.
9. ‘Research users’ from the private, public or third sectors, who make use of university research in their organisation or professional activity will play a key role on REF expert panels, sitting alongside senior academics. Those people are hopefully reading this paper and deciding that this is actually a really important investment of their time. We in academia rely on you to volunteer and to bring to the panel your sense of the contribution that LIS can make.
10. Finally, and very importantly, we have in LIS a very strong tradition of interaction between academia and the profession. My own first piece of funded research was commissioned by the Scottish Library and Information Council (Slic) and explored opportunities for collaboration to support business information provision in the North East of Scotland. That closeness remains and colleagues today continue to work with CILIP, Slic and others. In a recent study I interviewed early, mid-career and senior researchers in UK departments of LIS about research impact and how it formed part of their own research plans. What I found incredibly compelling was that, despite often getting slightly irked at the bureaucracies and box ticking of REF, so many of my respondents spoke with real emotion about their connections to and affinities with practitioners and their aspiration to make a difference to society.2
What can you do to help?
- Think of ways in which you can work with academics, invite them in to talk about and help with your challenges and issues;
- Involve academics in attempts to influence policy: there will be ways in which their research or that of others will be able to contribute to such exercises;
- Participate in a national debate on priorities for the impact research agenda for LIS going forward, as this would help to coalesce thinking and open up new directions for our work (and indeed is something CILIP might facilitate);
- Say yes when you are invited to be part of a research project, for collaboration is very highly rated in a REF context and there are many funding opportunities that would be strengthened by a better academic/practitioner mix;
- Seek nomination as a ‘Research User’ for their role is highly significant and will make a difference to LIS research performance in 2021;
- Help academic research achieve a high profile in the UK for there is a fear amongst LIS researchers that our research needs to be better ‘sold’; and
- Reach out to a researcher today telling them how you’ve valued or used their research.
The application and significance of LIS knowledge for society must be highlighted, not just to others in the community but beyond it into government and the media: “it’s a kind of lobbying, saying you can use this, this is of value to you” (academic research participant). For ultimately we all believe that library and information science matters and we need to work together to enhance the power of that message.
1 HEFCE (2016) REF impact: policy guide.
2 Marcella, R., Lockerbie, H. & Bloice, L. Beyond REF 2014: The impact of impact assessment on the future of information research. Journal of Information Science, 2016. 42(3), 369-385.