In the month when all so-called ‘research-active’ staff at the UKs leading universities are being asked to update their yearly REF profiles, meaning the publications they propose to be submitted to the Research Excellence Framework, the quality of which ultimately decides how much money one’s university may get from the state, it seems pertinent to reflect on some of the perverse incentives the REF creates.
These incentives seem particular odd at a university that is proud to have a firm commitment to social responsibility as one of its key three objectives or ‘missions’, as I will reflect on with a personal story. But the story is not really about me and the choices I made or that others made in a different way, but rather shows how some of the dynamics created by the REF might contravene certain types of social responsibility or accountability.
At the end of 2018 the proceedings of the 2016 International Conference on Eritrean Studies, held in the Eritrean capital Asmara from 20-22 July, came out in volume one and two. I have written about the conference before with a different focus, and while a high number of paper presenters came from within Eritrea and its higher education colleges, a substantial number of foreign academics were also present and giving papers. Looking at the proceedings, one would not have guessed that, as the vast majority of papers are indeed from Eritrean scholars.
I had organised with a colleague a panel on foreign policy dynamics in the Horn of Africa for the conference, in many ways a ‘hot’ or controversial topic. Thus, even though we did our best to attract local researchers to it, the panel in the end consisted of four foreign academics from universities outside Eritrea, including myself. I had spoken to the theme of my paper at other events before and a number of journals perceived as prestigious (in REF terms) had expressed an interest in publishing a finalized paper. But once our panel was accepted for the Asmara conference I made a conscious decision to publish its final version in the conference proceedings.
Following the logic of the REF, I should have ‘saved’ my paper for more prestigious publications – this would have been regarded as a rational decision in the light of REF pressures and the general narrative that valid research in REF-terms is only the research that targets top-end journals. And while I felt I was actually OK in terms of what is required for the next REF, there is always the underlying quest to excel even more in the next publication, making it often difficult to simply step back or step out of the spinning wheel that is to propel each publication to new heights. In many ways, one is not supposed to ever feel OK as far as the REF is concerned.
I would have felt rather odd to use a conference invitation to the Global South as a means to publish in a journal that many and perhaps most researchers in the Global South, and certainly in Eritrea, cannot access easily. And even if access can be organised or negotiated, papers travel very differently within local contexts if they are published locally. But this goes beyond my personal choice and what I regarded as my social responsibility to peers and colleagues in Eritrea on this occasion, rather it speaks to a much wider issue: Targeting so-called high impact journals regardless of the circumstances in which research papers were produced, debated or refined, and being socially responsible on how and where one publishes, is often not easy to square. And the pressure always seems to be on that if in doubt, forgo any other concerns but focus on journal rankings. Important questions about knowledge production and the power dynamics behind are obscured by this quest to make it into a tiny number of journals (and that even before reflecting on the dynamics of how publications make it into such journals or not).
For me personally, the decision to be part of the conference proceedings was very rewarding. I received some interesting and thoughtful peer-review comments from the editorial team. In addition, the paper has been read and discussed by many of those within Eritrea who I would have liked to read it, and perhaps more importantly, it is publicly part of the attempt to revive Eritrean Studies as a discipline – even if it will not win me any appreciation in relation to the REF. In a field as ideological as Eritrean Studies, in the eyes of some, publication as part of the proceedings of a conference partly hosted by the higher education and research bodies of the state and the ruling party might put me into a corner where I do not belong, as some sort of regime advocate – but then, those who hold that view might simply read my paper before they pass judgement.
But this is often another casualty of the fixation on the REF: many worthwhile and indeed important papers, book chapters or grey sources easily fall by the wayside, as only those publications that appear in the ‘right’ journals are judged as of sufficient value to be cited or debated.