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  • Writer's pictureKatherine Weikert

On REF and Writing

I don't think it's groundbreaking to mention how much I loathe REF. REF, the UK Research Excellence Framework, is a system by which university academics are judged for their research work, and universities are commensurately awarded with research funding on the outcome of that exercise. It happens every 6-7(ish, very ish) years.

There are a lot of problems with that, obviously. One is quite simply mental. In the process of getting your work judged, each academic gets a score that tells them how good, or how bad, they are perceived to be at their research. We do that all the time - any time we send anything in for peer review, in fact - but somehow, this feels worse. It is The System, not Reviewers 1 and 2, telling you how good or not good you are.

And as terrible as the whole system is (not fit for purpose, designed with STEM rather than Arts & Hums, the amount of paperwork and beaurocracy, the cost), what's also terrible is that without it, smaller universities like mine probably wouldn't receive much, if any, research funding. We hate it, but we rely on it.

There's your two minute lesson in REF. What I've been thinking about recently, though, is quite different. I've been thinking about how REF stifles writing.

We all write in many ways, and in many forms. It's something I mention to my undergraduates pretty frequently. The tone and timbre of this blog post is different from the piece I've handed in for History Today is different than the chapter I've just written for an academic volume. This one: casual. History Today: informed, for a broad audience. Chapter: specialist academic writing. There are different ways we talk about our research and our processes, and their expression needs to be fit to purpose.

I finished an academic monograph (read: specialist academic writing) in 2020. As much as I tried to make that as creative and fun a process for me as possible, it still had to maintain academic rigour and standards. Following on from that there are three or four pieces for edited volumes - same tone - and then, of course, a pandemic.

What makes writing fun for me?

I enjoy the academic writing, I really do, but I've reached a point where I want to have fun writing again. I want to be creative and play with the past. REF stifles these possibilities, can and probably does prevent us from being as creative and daring as we might otherwise be.

Fortunately, by dint of not being able to say no to anything, I am set for REF 2026-7 if I do nothing else beyond what I've already committed to - I will have 3-5 eligible pieces of academic writing set for the next REF. And so now, I want to play. I want to loosen my style, I want to write for more people, I want to make people interested in the stuff I love.

Watch this space. I'll have a piece out in History Today next month, and Hellebore in October. And, hopefully, soon, a big book of Matildas.

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