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“In crystalline text steeped in cold rage, Sayer takes aim at the REF’s central claim, that it is a legitimate process of expert peer review. He critiques university and national-level REF processes against actual practices of scholarly review as found in academic journals, university presses, and North American tenure procedures. His analysis is damning. If the REF fails as scholarly review, how can academics and universities continue to participate? And how can government use its rankings as a basis for public policy?” – Tarak Barkawi, Reader in the Department of International Relations, London School of Economics “Sayer makes a compelling argument that the Research Excellence Framework is not only expensive and divisive, but is also deeply flawed as an evaluation exercise. Rank Hypocrisies is a rigorous and scholarly evaluation of the REF, yet written in a lively and engaging style that makes it highly readable” – Dorothy Bishop, University of Oxford Few decisions are as consequential for the funding and reputation of Britain’s universities as those of REF panels. Not only do REF rankings determine the levels of research funding universities receive from the state. They equally affect institutions’ ability to attract external grants, top–flight faculty, and graduate students. Whatever benefit the UK’s periodic research assessment exercises may have brought to research productivity, the REF has been widely criticized for its enormous costs in taxpayers’ money and academics’ time, its discouragement of innovative (and especially interdisciplinary) research, and its negative effects on collegiality and staff morale. Derek Sayer extends these arguments, notably through his discussion of the questionable staff selection processes used in REF2014 within his own university. Where Rank Hypocrisies goes beyond previous critiques is in its open challenge to the REF’s claim to provide ‘expert review of the outputs’ – the very heart of its legitimacy. Examining the composition and operation of REF disciplinary subpanels in forensic detail, Sayer paints a picture in which overburdened assessors assign vaguely defined grades in fields that are frequently not their own while ignoring all external indicators of the academic influence of the publications they are appraising, and then shred all records of their deliberations. Judged against international norms of peer review, the REF is an elaborate charade – and an insult to the core values of the academy.

The Abject Academy
The Abject Academy

In a 2013 interview cited earlier, Sir Peter Swinnerton-Dyer, architect of the first UGC research selectivity exercise in 1986, argued that the RAE long since ceased to be a ‘tolerable process’. ‘The one question a modern civil servant fails to ask’, he complains, is ‘is it worth the extra effort?’ For him the answer is an emphatic no. In particular, evaluation of individual researchers’ outputs – the ‘silly idea’ that has stood at the heart of the RAE since 1989 and been my main focus throughout this book – produces ‘an absolutely intolerable level of work’. In his view,

The rot really set in when vice-chancellors ceased to see the RAE as a funding mechanism ...

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