Weak affiliation rules raise fears over REF 2029 game-playing

The Research Excellence Framework (REF) 2029 is fast approaching, and concerns are growing over the potential for game-playing due to weak affiliation rules. The REF is a crucial exercise that assesses the quality of research in UK higher education institutions, with the results determining funding allocations and reputational rankings. However, the current rules governing affiliations between institutions and researchers may inadvertently create opportunities for manipulation.

Under the current system, researchers can be affiliated with multiple institutions, allowing them to submit their work to multiple REF returns. While this flexibility is intended to reflect the increasingly collaborative nature of research, it also raises the risk of institutions “poaching” high-performing researchers to boost their own REF scores. This could lead to a situation where researchers are affiliated with institutions solely for the purpose of submitting their work to the REF, rather than having a genuine connection to the institution.

Critics argue that this loophole could be exploited by institutions seeking to artificially inflate their REF scores. By recruiting high-performing researchers on a temporary or honorary basis, institutions could potentially boost their rankings without making a meaningful contribution to the research environment. This would not only undermine the integrity of the REF but also create an unfair playing field, where institutions with deeper pockets or more aggressive recruitment strategies gain an advantage over others.

Furthermore, the lack of clear guidelines on affiliations may also lead to confusion and inconsistencies in the way institutions report their research outputs. This could result in disputes over the ownership of research and the allocation of funding, ultimately undermining the credibility of the REF.

To address these concerns, it is essential that the REF 2029 rules are revised to ensure that affiliations are genuine and meaningful. This could involve introducing stricter criteria for affiliations, such as requiring researchers to have a minimum level of engagement with the institution or to have made a significant contribution to the research environment. By strengthening the affiliation rules, the REF can maintain its integrity and continue to provide a reliable measure of research excellence in UK higher education institutions.

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