Are Books Still Viable After REF?

TL;DR – I wonder whether REF should influence my research agenda.

An important task for early-career, tenure-track faculty in the Humanities is to develop a research plan for promotion and/or tenure. Karen Kelsky estimates “you’ll likely need something along the lines of five articles and a book for tenure” in most Humanities fields, some of which must include material from a post-dissertation project. Therefore, when we plan we must take these expectations into account, not just whether a project is substantial enough to merit writing a book. However, recent changes in how academics are assessed in the UK have disturbed my research plan and I am no longer confident that publishing a book is optimal or even necessary. Moreover, as expectations in the UK increasingly differ from those in North America, and given that my employer is hybridized from both regional models, I find myself a bit unsettled.

The UK government published its guidelines for REF 2021 late last year, which are used to determine university rankings that provide both funding and prestige. One of the more significant outcomes for Humanities faculty is that one scholarly monograph is still weighted the same as one journal article for assessment purposes. Scholarly associations have objected to this assessment on the basis of disciplinary standards. The British Academy sympathizes:

The Academy is concerned that the in-depth, innovative and disruptive research that is necessarily communicated through monographs is being discouraged by the REF process. For this reason, the double-weighting of monographs should be encouraged, but with essential regard for cross-panel consistency.

Double-weighted books are considered equivalent to two articles. Simon Tanner reports that only around 24% of books in Literary Studies were proposed for this alternative measure for REF 2014. Yet it seems to me the more important point is that it is still much easier and less time-consuming to write two articles than one book. Notwithstanding pleas to respect the monograph and critiques of the framework itself, it appears that English departments across the UK must prioritize REF requirements over other concerns, which means that Humanities faculty must do the same if they want to remain employed after 2021. Early-career scholars around the world must also conform if they want to be competitive for UK positions. Consequently, Glen Wright’s cynical observation in 2014 that “there is no incentive to undertake long-term projects” seems just as accurate in 2018.

My own predicament is that current tenure and promotion guidelines at UWI-St. Augustine are a curious mix of North American and UK standards, in addition to guidelines that are idiosyncratic to the UWI system. Several colleagues and me will submit our applications for contract renewal later this month, which are evaluated according to these standards. Similarly to the REF model, one book is equivalent to one article. For a few years now my faculty has considered changes to make these guidelines consistent with North American standards. If they were approved books would be weighted as equivalent to five articles and become an efficient method of output for promotion. However, these changes are not inevitable and it is possible that UWI administrators decide to adopt the UK model instead, which already resembles the current system. My existing research output is sufficient for contract renewal. I have reached a point where I need to decide whether to complete a book-length manuscript or continue writing journal articles for the next promotion. For the moment neither choice is self-evident.

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