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In 2008 every university department will be graded for their research output. This is a major event. In RAE 2001 the departments were rated on a scale between 1 and 5, where 4 was a department of national importance and 5 a department of international importance. The results led to the nationally important departments having funding removed and in some cases, closed down. There were also extra fudge factors like a 5* which benefited some universities, but that’s another issue.

This time around the rating is different:

4* – Work that is ‘world leading’ will be internationally outstanding in terms of its originality, significance and rigour. This will be seen as innovative and potentially agenda-setting in research, making a contribution of which every serious worker in the research area is, or ought to be, aware.
3* – Work that is ‘internationally excellent’ in terms of originality, significance and rigour. This will rank with the best work in a similar subject undertaken elsewhere in the world, which significantly advances knowledge and understanding and/or original thought within the discipline, and to the development of research agendas.
2* – Work that is ‘recognised internationally’ in terms of originality, significance and rigour. This work will be judged as making a contribution which advances knowledge and understanding within the discipline, at a level equivalent to other work in a similar subject undertaken elsewhere in the world.
1* – Work that is ‘recognised nationally’ in terms of originality, significance and rigour will make a respected contribution to knowledge and understanding by following established agendas.
Unclassified – Work that falls below the standard of nationally recognised work or which does not meet the published definition of research for the purposes of this assessment. It will also be applied to ‘missing’ outputs, where the reason for submitting fewer than four outputs has not been accepted by the sub-panel.

A cynic would say that this time round if your work is merely “recognised internationally in terms of originality, significance and rigour,” then your funding will be cut, but that’s another issue.

The figure for a department will come from submissions of work by teaching and research staff. Not all staff have to submit, but each member that does will be expected to submit four pieces of work, unless there’s a good reason like long-term illness etc. Another get-out is for Early Career Researchers. For classics and archaeology there are no hard and fast rules on what gets applied to them as far as I can tell, and here’s what those rules are:

  • Starting Autumn 2003 or after: May submit three pieces of work.
  • Starting Autumn 2005 or after: May submit two pieces of work.
  • Starting Autumn 2007 or after: May submit one piece of work.

It could be someone starting this summer might get away with submitting one piece, but with so much resting on this it’d be a brave department that would take the risk. On the plus side a recent (2006/7) PhD thesis may count as a publication. Or it might not. The full rules aren’t out yet as far as I can tell.

The census is taken at the end of 2007, so it’s researchers in department at that time that count to the score. So if Poor University paid for labs and equipment for Top Researcher between 2001 and 2006, and then Top Researcher is poached by Rich University in 2007 with the promise of a generous retirement in 2008, then Rich University will get the credit for being a leading research environment. Yes, I do find that slightly annoying even though this is good news for me. I should have 2-4 publications for the census despite being an ECR, which should make me attractive to employers, but as far as identifying centres of excellence I’m not sure how fair the system is. On the plus side the creation of a transfer market for researchers has help boost academic pay, so it’s not all bad.

If UK researchers appear a bit mad over the next 20 months or so, then at least you know why. More details, can be found at the RAE site.