How austerity, markets, and rankings transformed the British social sciences

How do rankings transform the academic enterprise? Starting in 1986 and roughly every five years since, the British government has assessed the quality of research across the UK’s publicly funded universities to optimize the allocation of the nation’s scarce research funding. The most recent of these assessments, the 2014 Research Excellence Framework (REF), motivates the title of this book. Operationalized as vast and complex assessments that simultaneously evaluate academic outputs and the boundaries of every discipline contained in Britain’s public universities, these exercises are now an undisputed part of the incentives and constraints that structure the British higher education sector and its many knowledge workers. REF’d! provides a thorough, original, and unique examination of how these research assessments reshaped academic careers, institutional priorities, and the type of knowledge produced by British social scientists.

Evidence of decreasing disciplinary diversity. Cosine similarity of papers published in British-based journals in Economics, Political Science/IR and Sociology 1970-2018.

By combining fine-grained quantitative data, computational analyses of academic publications, interviews with scholars and managers, and institutional archival materials, REF’d! addresses a number of key questions about the production of knowledge in the context of disciplining research evaluations: Did assessments foster intellectual homogeneity or heterogeneity within disciplines? Did they promote interdisciplinarity and collaboration or cement customs and canonical approaches? Did they make disciplines more international or more uniquely British? Did they create pressures to conform or opportunities for differentiation? Did they affect the value given to teaching by higher education managers and academics with respect to research? Did they somehow transform the soul and vocation of scholars? Studying how social scientists grappled with frequent assessments of their works and disciplines, REF’d! shows the linkages between knowledge, careers, labor and organizations and their implications for the production of better, fairer academic workplaces.