Ready for the REF?

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The new Research Excellence Framework (REF) will replace the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE), changing the way that universities report on their research programmes. The aim is to bring benefits for universities seeking to leverage the value of their research work. JISC Inform finds out how JISC is helping UK researchers and their universities make the transition.

The REF builds on the work of the RAE in providing a fair, clear and efficient way of allocating research funding, and of establishing reputational and other markers. In this respect, many of its requirements are nothing new.

Its main fresh element is an assessment of the impact of research work undertaken. It’s a move designed to open up research to wider scrutiny, demonstrating more clearly that increasingly scarce funds have been wisely invested.

Efforts have been made to minimise the REF’s impact on hard-pressed institutions. Many of its data requirements have been streamlined with those of other agencies, while ensuring that it continues to offer a robust and expert review process. Nevertheless, some differences inevitably remain.

Submissions will need to contain a wide range of common data, including:

information on selected staff in post on the census day (31 October 2013)

details of up to four of their publications or other research outputs between the start of 2008 and the end of 2013

detailed information on the institution’s approach to enabling impact of the work

case studies describing impacts

details of doctoral degrees awarded and research income secured

description of the research environment during the census period

Information will only be accepted via a new, web-based application that is now being built on to the software for the 2008 RAE, into which it will be possible to import data in a variety of file formats.

Despite initiatives to ease the burden of transition, JISC’s programme manager for digital infrastructure Josh Brown explains that, for many education organisations, implementing the REF represents a significant challenge. “Many universities are using home-grown or off-the-peg information management systems that make it very hard to draw information together efficiently and do not support effective sharing of data outside the organisation,” he said.

For more than a decade, JISC has been working with universities, providing start-up funding and specialist advice to help them develop repositories for research information to make sure of its effective management; Reading’s CentAUR is an example. Completed in 2010, it is a key part of the university’s strategy for providing submissions to the REF. Fully searchable via the internet, it is also bringing much broader benefits in enhanced visibility for the university’s research.

In her report on CentAUR, project manager Alison Sutton says, “As proof of a growing confidence in CentAUR to increase visibility, a number of authors are keen to expose all of their publications in it, have provided full texts and also links from their own web pages and blogs.”

Once a university has developed its repository to store that information, it’s crucial to find a way for it to ‘talk’ to other systems. A JISC-funded project at King’s College, London and the University of Southampton is developing plug-ins that build on the existing CERIF metadata model to give established repositories an efficient way to submit publications information to the REF. This funding has been provided by JISC from the Universities Modernisation Fund on behalf of the Higher Education Funding Council (HEFCE).

While some universities are choosing to go it alone, others could benefit from a shared approach to what will become a UK-wide requirement. So JISC is providing £1.1m of funding to support the Research Management and Administration System (RMAS) project, which is developing a highly cost-effective, cloud-based system enabling research information to be shared easily. It has implications far beyond the REF. Much of that work is being done by a group of pathfinder universities – with Exeter as lead, alongside Kent and Sunderland.

The intention is that all shared service modules will be CERIF compliant and communicate using an Enterprise Service Bus so that individual institutions have the freedom to select specific modules to meet their internal needs, while enjoying the benefits of a fully integrated system.

For the University of Sunderland, one of the UK’s ‘new’ universities, being a pathfinder for this programme is proving a neat way of finding a solution to the shortcomings of its own research information management systems. Two years ago, as the university’s business managers began to call for increasing amounts of management information and business intelligence, its Graduate Research Support team recognised that a new system was required – and that a local solution simply couldn’t meet the long-term requirement.

Being involved as a pathfinder on the RMAS programme has allowed us to really move the development of our own research information management systems forwards.”

Simon Kerridge is the university’s head of research support. He says,

“Being involved as a pathfinder on the RMAS programme has allowed us to really move the development of our own research information management systems forwards. JISC has provided us with matchfunding as well as advice and support, especially around the huge task of procurement, and we are confident that the University of Sunderland will have the functionality it needs well ahead of the schedule that we had set ourselves when we were working alone.”

And, he adds, the ability to work with other organisations will result in a superior solution as, “the three pathfinders are different in size, approach and research intensity, so we have all been able to feed different elements into the mix, creating a stronger and more robust model.”

Demonstrator systems at the three pathfinder institutions will be up and running in the second quarter of 2012, helping to inform those wishing to use the procurement framework.

It is anticipated that, when fully implemented, the RMAS will enable efficiency savings to be made of between 10 and 20 per cent of associated staff time, through streamlining and the removal of inefficiencies and inaccuracies caused – for example – by duplicate data keying and the creation of multiple data sets.

These benefits sit alongside other harder to quantify advantages, including the ability to build profile and reputation through more efficient data sharing, and enhanced ‘findability’.

Find out more about how JISC can support your university with advice and guidance to enhance your research excellence.

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