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Langlands defends REF peer review commitment

The Higher Education Funding Council for England has responded to criticism from early-stage researchers about the status of peer review in the Research Excellence Framework.

In a letter to HEFCE chief executive Alan Langlands, members of the Voice of Young Science (VOYS) campaign group called for greater recognition of researchers’ contribution to science in reviewing papers and grant applications.

Ensuring that peer review is understood to be a key part of REF will encourage university departments to safeguard and prioritise that element in the workload of their research staff, the group argues. This would guarantee that such duties will continue to be a significant part of the contribution made by researchers to scholarly publishing throughout their careers.

“More importantly, it will ensure that reviewing is approached professionally and seriously, enabling senior researchers to spend time mentoring early career researchers like ourselves in these activities. Without recognition in the REF we risk reviewing of both papers and grant applications becoming a marginal activity and inevitably inconsistent and shoddy,” the letter says.

In reply, Langlands insisted that various examples of reviewing activity are included as part of the evidence on which the REF assesses the performance of an academic institution. They form part of the “contribution to the discipline or research base”, which the REF panels agreed in autumn 2011 would be part of the detailed criteria for differentiating between institutions.

“More generally, the REF is an assessment process that identifies institutions that have produced excellent research and made strong contributions to the research base and to wider society. While we expect institutions to manage their block grant research funding wisely and to support a range of activities that will lead to these outcomes, we avoid using the REF as a mechanism for directing institutions in how to do so,” he said.

Early-career researchers’ concerns surfaced during the preparation of a guide to the process of peer review for young researchers, ‘Peer review: the nuts and bolts’. The document was launched by VoYS at the Euroscience Open Forum in Dublin from 11 to 15 July.