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I am as much aware as anyone of the problems with the current REF system. The intent behind Stern’s proposals on portability may be good, but their implications are less clear.

This blogpost is about some of the question marks with which I am presented, and some possible ways around them that occur to me. As has been pointed out here, we all have our own backstories that shape how we respond to Stern. I’m no exception, and regular readers of this blog will no doubt recognize that in the thoughts below. They’re influenced by my record, my career stage, my back-and-forth lifestyle of I don’t know how many years.

I realize that, and realize equally that not everyone will see things quite the same way. My thoughts are those of an early-career researcher in his seventh fixed-term job. As such, I am affected differently from someone who has got a permament post (or moved to a new one) since the start of the current REF cycle. They will in turn be in affected differently from a scholar who has been established in a permanent post for many years. The principle of ‘owning’ one’s research concerns all of them, but the practical implications in terms of job security and career prospects are different in each case.

I hope to do at least some justice to these different perspectives by updating this post to take account of responses that come up on twitter or in the comments (you are currently reading revision two). With that in mind, here we go: first the questions, then the proposals.

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1. What happens to someone who has got external funding to carry out research abroad?  Will their project cease to be REF-able as a result, and take their employability down with it? Or perhaps the person will return to the UK and be employed in a part-time position—does the UK university then get to claim the project monograph that they write up in their unpaid spare time? It’s not such an unlikely scenario if you bear in mind the mobility and grant-getting boxes we ECRs are expected to tick. It also points up the unclarified problems that follow from depriving scholars (not just ECRs here) of ownership of their research: if it is not theirs, who exactly does get to claim the publications from a project that spanned several years, employers, funding bodies, and locations?

2. Will ending portability really stop universities ‘gaming’ the system, or just change how they do it? Stopping the ‘poaching’ of established scholars in the run-up to the REF sounds eminently sensible. The same goes for hiring people for less than a year to submit their research and then sending them on their merry way. But if the ‘solution’ chosen is to  end portability—what is to stop universities hiring people en masse on fixed-term contracts in order to ‘farm’ contributions for each REF? If universities are guaranteed credit for ECRs’ work, what incentive have they to invest in them any more than they can get away with?

3. How does this affect the job market? The pragmatic reality is that REF rounds have provided one of the few channels for making the transition to a permanent position on the basis of one’s record—but if ECRs can no longer bring that record to the table as a contribution to make, that changes. Perversely, the rewards for their efforts will be reaped instead by the various institutions that are not employing them. This is also, of course, where the glimmer of hope appears: that people might be appointed for their potential to produce publications for their new employer well into the future, sustainably and for the long term. Yet even that raises further questions, about career-stage advantages and disadvantages for example: would someone writing up a thesis with no or few publications be easier to employ on the grounds of potential (gain only) than someone further down the line with a longer publication list (a demonstration of potential, but also a reminder of all the outputs a new employer would not be getting)?

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So it’s all very uncertain. One has to hope that the ‘potential’ and ‘long-term’  aspects that I touched on in that last point take the upper hand as positive consequences if these proposals are implemented. But one becomes increasingly worn down and sceptical over the years, to the extent that just hoping is not enough. Instead, the following suggestions (I deliberately call them that rather than ‘answers’):

1. Address the uncertainty. What we have got are proposals that may or may not be implemented in their current form. How are people supposed to plan around that part of the way into the REF cycle? At the very least, work published before the new rules are finalized should remain portable, instead of penalizing ECRs (and people who have already moved or gained permanent posts within the current REF cycle) by retrospectively shifting the goalposts.

2. Prevent exploitation. If portability is to be abolished across the board, universities should not be given carte blanche to submit the research of ECRs who are no longer working for them. They should have to demonstrate that the pay and working conditions were fair. But ways will always be found around such things on paper, so how about giving ECRs a say as well? For example, allow them to nominate an institution in the case of a project that has been carried out with more than one employer, or indeed to decline to be submitted (e.g. if an institution tries to claim research that they did in their unpaid free time, or somewhere else entirely rather than where they happened to be when it was published).

3. Find a balanced compromise. If portability is to be ended for research done in a permanent job, it should at least be retained for research done by ECRs prior to a permanent post. Their research would continue to benefit them on the way toward a permanent position, rather than becoming a commodity that serves the needs only of short-term employers. At the same time, people could still be hired on the basis of their potential to produce research in future, and the current pre-REF shenanigans would still be ended.