At the beginning of December, I went to Leiden in the Netherlands to present a paper on behalf of the Academics Writing project. The conference was the Accelerated Academy, which brings together scholars from across Europe, mainly from STS (Science and Technology Studies) but also from other disciplines, to share research about the acceleration of higher education and the increased use of metrics for research evaluation. Clips of some sessions from the Prague conference in 2015 can be found here.
Our paper focused on the tensions that have emerged from the project around the REF. The UK’s national research evaluation exercise pushes academics in competing directions in their writing. The REF and institutional policies around it drive academics to write more and better journal articles in each REF period, and this has become an overarching goal for academics’ writing practices: to publish enough and to target the right journals is to keep their job, to get promoted and to be considered successful. But not all academics really want to publish this sort of journal article, or at least not at the expense of other genres. Historians value monographs, but these take a long time to write and because four research outputs can be submitted to the REF, four has become something of a magic number. Four monographs in a single REF period would be more or less impossible, but departments expect at least four publications, so historians are pushed towards writing journal articles. For Marketing academics, four translates as four-star; their ultimate target for publishing. They are encouraged to publish in four-star journals, which they see as a.) unrealistically difficult and b.) pushing them out of their discipline. If it’s too hard to get into a four-star marketing journal, one can always aim for a four-star management journal.
Finally, although since 2014 the REF rewards writing for impact beyond academia, writing for non-academic audiences was widely perceived by our respondents to be of secondary importance to writing for peer-reviewed, high-impact journals. Many were interested in writing for the media, writing blog posts, tweeting and the like, but didn’t feel that their institutions valued these genres. This view is unsurprising given the relentless counting and evaluating by universities of writing that is aimed primarily at other academics.