Kafkarna continues: REF gloves off at Lancaster University

Two days ago an open letter from Professor Paolo Palladino, former Head of the History Department at Lancaster University, appeared on the university’s internal History Staff list serve, with copies sent to senior administrators in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASS) and Central Administration.  I responded the next day with a post supporting Professor Palladino’s position, sent to the same recipients. With Paolo’s permission, I am reproducing both of our letters here.  We both believe that the issues raised by Lancaster’s selective culling of research-active staff from submission in the 2014 REF–a practice in which it is not alone among British universities–deserve the widest possible public debate.  We would therefore urge anyone who shares our concerns to share this post through social media.

Professor Palladino’s letter:
Dear all,
Over the next few days, a number of colleagues across the university are to be informed that they will not be returned in REF. I am one of these colleagues and I wish to challenge the culture of secrecy around our situation, which blocks any form of engaged, collective response to the way in which REF, as it is being managed at Lancaster University, impoverishes us all.
I regard the evaluation of research as perfectly legitimate and also think that the university’s management is at liberty to mobilise academic assets in a manner that maximises the returns of the university’s investments in staff and resources. I think none the less that the situation in which I find myself is an indictment of this department, this faculty and this university. All three have now assented to the notion that the author of the required four academic outputs, each published in a peer-reviewed, internationally recognised journal and thus meeting the expectation that any outputs returned should be ‘recognised internationally in terms of originality, significance and rigour’ (grade 2), does not merit inclusion in the evaluation of academic research undertaken by staff at Lancaster University. The problem is that the internal preparations for REF reward disciplinary orthodoxy by resting, for reasons of economy, upon the evaluations of a single reader per Unit of Assessment (UoA) and by expecting that each member of staff returned should fit within the narrative of one of the UoA submissions. Consequently, it is not possible to accommodate a researcher whose output is ‘recognised internationally in terms of originality, significance and rigour’, but whose work cuts across the domains of a number of UoAs and thus must in all likelihood fall short of the most common assumptions about what constitute the ‘highest standards of excellence’ (grade 4) for each and every UoA involved. Acceptance of this situation calls into question this university’s commitment to supporting interdisciplinary research, the one asset that has served most successfully to distinguish Lancaster University in an increasingly competitive global market for higher education.
I greatly regret this situation and I hope that the one third of our colleagues who, it seems, are not to be returned in REF will challenge an internal institutional judgement that calls into question both the rationale of our diverse appointments and the meaning of academic freedom at Lancaster University.
Best wishes,
Paolo Palladino
Professor of History and Theory
Department of History
Lancaster University
Lancaster LA1 4YT
My response:

Regarding Paolo Palladino’s open letter

Recently I published a lengthy blog post entitled “The Kafkan World of the British REF” (August 13, 2013), which concluded as follows:

“For whatever reasons, the funding councils for British universities have chosen to allocate that portion of their budget earmarked for research in ways that (at least in the humanities) systematically ignore the normal and well-established international benchmarks for judging the quality of research and publications [in particular, peer reviews and citations].  Instead, they have chosen to set up their own panopticon of handpicked disciplinary experts, whose eminence is not in doubt, but whose ability to provide informed assessments of the vast range of outputs submitted to them may well be questioned.

The vagaries of this approach have been exacerbated in the 2014 REF by putting in place a financial reward regime that incentivizes individual universities to exclude potential 2* and 1* outputs from submission altogether.  The resulting internal university REF procedures [for trying to identify and exclude these outputs in advance] are not only enormously wasteful of time and money that could otherwise be spent on research.  More importantly, they compound the elements of subjectivity and arbitrariness already inherent in the RAE/REF system, ensuring that evaluations of quality on whose basis individuals are [included or] excluded from the REF are often not made by subject-matter experts at all.   Research that crosses disciplinary boundaries or challenges norms will find itself especially vulnerable in this context, because it is seen as especially “risky.”

Whatever this charade is, it is not a framework for research excellence.  If anything, it is likely to encourage conventional, “safe” research, while actively penalizing risk-taking innovation—above all, where that innovation crosses the disciplinary boundaries entrenched in the REF Sub-panels.  The REF is not even any longer a research assessment exercise, in any meaningful definition of that term, because so much of the assessment is now done within individual universities, in anything but rigorous ways, before it enters the REF proper at all.”

Interested colleagues may wish to inspect the evidence and reasoning behind this conclusion here:


The exclusion of the work of a senior and well published colleague, engaged in serious interdisciplinary work, from Lancaster University’s 2014 REF submission despite having (more than) 4 outputs in respected international peer-reviewed journals during the census period confirms all my misgivings.

Professor Palladino will no doubt be advised of his right to appeal.  I would advise him not to bother, for reasons I also spelled out in my post:

“Though there is a right of appeal for individuals … Lancaster’s Code of Practice is crystal clear that: “The decision on the inclusion of staff to the REF is a strategic and qualitative process in which judgements are made about the quality of research of individual members of staff.  The judgements are subjective, based on factual information. Hence, disagreement with the decision alone would not be appropriate grounds for an appeal” (my emphasis).

This is the ultimate Kafkan twist.  The subjectivity of the process of evaluation is admitted, but only as a reason for denying any right of appeal against its decisions on substantive grounds.”

I do not object to the evaluation of research, but believe the way it has been done within Lancaster University is anything but rigorous, fair or objective.  I therefore share all Professor Palladino’s concerns, and applaud his courage in raising them through this open letter to colleagues.  As a senior professor of this university, a former Head of History at Lancaster (and of Sociology at Alberta), a former Canada Research Chair and recipient of research funding from SSRC, AHRC, the British Academy, the Royal Society, SSHRC (Canada), and the Canadian Foundation for Innovation, not to mention a “research active” scholar of more than 35 years standing (I got my first permanent university position in 1978), I feel morally obliged to write publicly and emphatically in his support.  I would urge others who care about the future of British universities in general and Lancaster in particular to do the same.

Derek Sayer

September 27, 2013


  1. Reblogged this on To the left of centre and commented:
    I thought I would reblog this. Partly because I haven’t had a chance to write much recently and it gives me an opportunity to keep things ticking over, partly because it seems like something worth highlighting (although given my readership, this may not help much), and partly because I’ve written about the REF (and been quite critical) and this type of activity is one of the things that I expected to happen and illustrates the issues – in my opinion – with this type of assessment process. I particularly like, and agree with, this comment in the post Whatever this charade is, it is not a framework for research excellence and so I recommend giving this a good read.

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