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Placing research integrity at the heart of REF

  • 7 May 2024
  • By Rachael Gooberman-Hill, Nandini Das, Maria Delgado and Miles Padgett
  • This HEPI blog was kindly authored by Rachael Gooberman-Hill, Co-chair of the UK Committee on Research Integrity, and Nandini Das, Maria Delgado, and Miles Padgett, members of the Committee.
  • This piece is the latest in a series of HEPI blogs discussing REF2029. In March, we heard from the Executive Chair of Research England, Dame Professor Jessica Corner; and last week, we published this piece on small and specialist institutions from Emma Wakelin, Pro Vice-Chancellor for Research & Innovation at the Royal College of Art.

As Co-chair and members of the UK Committee on Research Integrity, we are here to support research integrity in the UK. Our role includes the articulation of views about areas where there are good reasons to focus on research integrity. One such area is research assessment, for which plans for the Research Excellence Framework 2029 (REF 2029) remain a hot topic across higher education.

The first commitment of the 2019 UK Concordat to Support Research Integrity comprises five principles of integrity: rigour, open and transparent communication, honesty, care and respect, and accountability. It’s clear to us that research can only be excellent if carried out with integrity. Sometimes this link is so clear that it goes unsaid, and we’d like to keep talking about integrity and excellence.

Like many of us in the research sector, at the UK Committee on Research Integrity, we’ve been thinking hard about plans for REF 2029. We’ve been pleased to respond to consultations that the REF Team have been running, and we’ll continue to do so in the months ahead. 

Colleagues across the sector know what’s at stake in REF. They understand the importance of robust evaluation and know that REF drives resource allocation and demonstrates the impact and quality of research taking place in UK higher education.

In the previous REF exercise, integrity was arguably an unsung hero. Aspects of research integrity were neatly but quietly embedded in all three elements of REF: outputs, impacts and environment. For future REF exercises, we’d be ahead of the global research assessment landscape if we make attention to research integrity explicit and demonstrate that the processes of REF itself are carried out with integrity. With research being undertaken, and used, in a globalised context it’s vital to protect confidence and trust in research. Showing that UK integrity is taken seriously in research assessment supports that trust.  

The proposals for REF 2029’s People, Culture and Environment element excited huge interest and it’s here that we see a particular chance to assess integrity-related practice. In stakeholder consultations that we’ve held and from listening to colleagues across higher education, we’ve heard that there are several areas that matter most. We’ve already published our detailed submission to the consultation on the PCE element of REF and we’ve been pleased with the level of engagement on integrity. We continue to hear more from the sector, our thinking is developing, and we’ve identified four crucial areas:

  • First, institutions taking part in REF already collect and report on the integrity of their practice and governance. Rather than asking institutions to produce new materials, this existing information could be reused in REF, if institutions know well in advance what would be assessed and how. For instance, all institutions in receipt of funding from any of the signatories of the Concordat to Support Research Integrity are expected to produce annual narrative, assurance statements. These statements contain information about practice and policies, as well as (anonymised) information about research misconduct, and might be reused for REF. A formal assessment of these narrative statements can ascertain whether the institution is engaged in a journey of learning and improvement. A caveat relating to responsible use of metrics applies here: the volume of misconduct allegations, whether upheld or not, is not an indicator of research health itself, what is more important is to understand whether processes are followed and whether institutions learn from these.
  • Second, REF can assess the extent to which the mechanisms to support research integrity are in place. Importantly, this will look different across disciplines, but for outputs, it could include attention to the presence of author contribution statements and statements covering the availability of data and materials.
  • Third, those working in research understand the importance of REF, and want it to be fit for purpose against a background of stretched resources. Institutions want to have their best chance of submitting materials that do justice to staff members’ research outputs, impact and environment. This commitment to REF and the resource it takes means it is imperative that metrics are responsible and that bureaucracy is proportionate.
  • Finally, the application of principles of research integrity in the mechanisms of REF sets the tone for the whole sector. Developing new processes and related indicators with rigour and transparency takes time. Those working in all parts of the sector understand that research itself can take years or decades to come to fruition, test and deliver through pathways to impact. We hear from across higher education that there is a desire for research assessment to be carried out to the same standards of integrity as the research itself. Achieving this would be a great accolade for the UK research sector.

Public spending on research is under pressure and it’s never been more important for us to demonstrate the integrity of the research we do and the value for money we deliver. Progress and change take time. The sector understands the importance of REF. Shining a light on the integrity of assessment helps REF to identify research and impact excellence with rigour.

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1 comment

  1. Any reference to include any attempt to measure or assess anything through REF makes me nervous. This is because of the significant risk of unintended consequences of imposition of metrics (or indicators as the many proponents of the move to PCE prefer to call them) on Institutions and the risk that it drives behaviours in ways that run counter to the intention of the metric/indicators. This is particularly the case with research integrity given its importance and the sensitivity and complexities of managing cases of research misconduct. I hope my words of caution might bear some weight given that I was administrative lead for Cambridge’s submission to REF 2021. I would be first to say that submission of in excess of 340.000 words that made up the collective narrative submissions for Cambridge’s submission to 30 UoAs plus Institutional Environment Statement was not necessarily the most efficient process. However, research environment is not easy to assess in numerical or quantitative terms. I remain highly sceptical that it will be possible to identify effective metrics for PCE and my prediction is that where they are identified it will lead to unintended consequences. As an example, let’s just hope that inclusion of research integrity within PCE in REF2029 does not result in allegations of research misconduct being brushed under the carpet. Importantly, I make that last comment given my experience in my former capacity as Cambridge’s Spinsor Representative for research under the Depart of Health Framework and experience gained in managing high profile research integrity matters such as the Cambridge Analytica/Facebook incident. Please note that I am making these remarks in a personal capacity and not in my role as Co-Chair of the Advisory Council of UKRIO.

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