Monday, 24 October 2011

Come off it, REF!

The REF could have an influence on how academics engage with non academics
This post isn't about what is happening on various football fields but on different academic fields. The REF in question (Research Excellence Framework) is in many ways an improvement over the previous Research Assessment Exercise (RAE), with 20% of the assessment based upon the impact of research on non academics. There is, however, a catch: the research not only needs to have a justifiable impact but must also be published in academic journals with an impact factor. Departments noted for their excellent work with the general public, policy makers, business people, practitioners will not be credited by the REF unless the research they develop to help such stakeholders is published in journals used almost exclusively by (a small number of) academics. Why is this a problem? My view is that building a field or developing a discipline is not able to develop in an inclusive way if it follows the Kuhnian approach to research termed “normal science” based on past scientific achievements that the appropriate academic community acknowledges as a foundation for its practice. Kuhn describes these achievements, or “paradigms” as both sufficiently unprecedented to attract a group of adherents away from competing modes of academic research, but, at the same time, sufficiently open-ended to leave various problems for the community of research practitioners to address. Paradigms, in this way, thus help academic communities to demarcate their discipline. They do so, Kuhn argues, by creating avenues of inquiry, helping to formulate research questions, directing the selection of methods appropriate to these questions, defining areas of relevance, structuring the fact gathering process and identifying acceptable technologies appropriate for research. A paradigm also acts to draw in individuals to act as advocates. These advocates and followers are then transformed into a research community, a profession or a discipline as the paradigm becomes accepted and gains credibility. This occurs, Kuhn argues, through the formation of journals, societies or specialist groups, which develop the discipline through articles that are directed to their colleagues who accept the paradigm, rather than needing to justify the concepts, questions, and methods from first principles. This professionalism is supported by the community using its expertise to claim, both for themselves and their paradigm, a place in the academic establishment.