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.

In this way, justification for claims over research territory and, by implication, claims to disciplinary status, are typically measured by their exponents, in journal articles, conferences, research council funding, processing graduate students quickly and departments or centres, as repeatedly mentioned. Such measures are easy to quantify as research outputs and/or demonstrate the strength of a research community and, through peer review, they preserve minimum standards. As indicators or measures, they give some indication of the investment in specific ideas, methods and topics, equated with the values of a group of academics and related bodies. Researchers and academics should certainly continue to strive to disseminate ideas in academic journals, teach specialist courses, bid for research funding, organise conferences, but not at the expense of reducing the scope and significance of the research. Indeed, as a basis for a strategy of field building, it is likely to be counterproductive, concentrating on the epiphenomena of good research, producing identikit answers to the most accommodating problems rather than on more worthy issues that might be too complex to yield publishable article-length outputs. In addition, a departmental emphasis upon publication in “high impact” academic journals as the measure of value is likely to reduce the amount of time academics spend engaging with practitioners and reduce the relevance of research outputs to a practitioner audience, with interaction tending to be more instrumental or strategic. The pressure of research assessment exercises, such as the new REF in the is likely to limit opportunities for practitioner-oriented, and inter disciplinary-oriented, researchers, the flouting equal opportunity policies, lack of long term strategic planning, the likelihood of creative researchers opting out of academia all together, among other criticisms (see Elton 2000: 280-281). The consequence is that with fewer intermediaries and with younger researchers guided away from such practitioner engagement, the gap between academics and practitioners is in many cases widened, when the benefits of narrowing the gap are obvious to those engaged with entrepreneurship. As Elton concludes: “academic traditionalism in research, often in the very areas where it ought to be lessened, have discouraged new developments and interdisciplinary research, and have isolated researchers from practitioners” (Elton 2000: 279).

A normal science strategy may help in producing solid agreement on how to get an abundance of answers, acquire support to do so, and avenues for disseminating them, but at a tremendous cost in exactly the areas that academic research should be contributing to knowledge, i.e. in identifying key problems and developing applications in practice, while developing and investigating new concepts and theories, which enable the complex landscape to be more effectively explained. As Daft and Lewin observed:

Research may be generated at a fast pace, but contributions will typically defend the extant point of view, and are less likely to lead to fundamental new insight. (Daft and Lewin 1990: 2)
Such a divorce from practitioners and overemphasis on normal science measures can have serious consequences in developing appropriate outputs for practitioners or developing useful, creative and stimulating debates, as Gareth Morgan argues:

The control systems developed by journals and university departments alike exert a confining if well-meaning hold on the jugular of scholarship, which threatens to strangle the development of new possibilities. (Morgan 1990: 29)
The alternative to this strong grip is not to internalise the stranglehold, but to learn how to build an academic movement capable of innovating through engagement with the experience and knowledge of practitioners, as seems to be a fundamental strategy in some of the key social entrepreneurship research networks, as outlined in recent collections of articles and case studies by researchers and practitioners (see Nicholls 2006; Steyaert and Hjorth 2006). There is no simple recipe or “how to” model, and extensive research (for example Whitley 1984; Becher and Trowler 2001) demonstrates that organisational factors such as academic culture and administrative structures are as important as the research agenda and discipline problematic, in determining the prospects of a new field. Nevertheless, what is absent is the type of mobilisation strategy able to draw together the expertise and credibility to provide the academic coherence to the agglomeration of specific cases. The competition with other claims over parts of the same research territory requires this, both as a measure of success, i.e. as an alternative to normal science measures, and as a way of enabling its standing, contacts, knowledge, resources, leadership etc to gain critical mass within the academy. This is, of course, a difficult challenge, and clarifies why a normal science approach seems the easy option to any young field, but it is an approach which pull in the opposite direction of building a strong and inclusive academic movement, one which can thrive on developing and implementing a pluralist, and no less rigorous, research agenda, strengthens its potential for collaboration in which both orientation types can benefit.

An academic movement approach, then, in contrast with the normal science approach, is a collective, inclusive and emergent process, unfolding an agenda that resonates with the group’s interests and concerns. Such research need have no fear of developing exciting, bold theories and imaginative testing methods, able to tolerate academic failure while rewarding vision, engagement and change-making tools through prominence in an active and vibrant movement. Understanding research topics in their myriad forms requires asking research questions which policy makers and practitioners benefit from asking and which academics benefit from answering, but without greater engagement are neither asked nor answered. In new fields, as in the field of play, an unfair REF could be very damaging to your ambitions.

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