Thursday, 18 December 2014

Intergroup dynamics and the REF

In the current context of the Research Excellence Framework (REF), there are some similarities between how academics react to the pressures of the REF and how crowds respond to novel, pressurised situations.
I find it interesting that, unlike other ‘human sciences’, psychology is somewhat fragmented. As an example, biological psychology and social psychology are so different in their subject matter, assumptions and methods that they hardly appear to be part of the same discipline. And social psychology itself is often characterized by differences and deep disagreements over its proper subject matter (cognition? talk?) and appropriate theoretical framework (social identity? social cognition?).
These within-discipline differences become more or less salient according to context. For example, in the departments I have studied and worked in, I have noticed that the arguments about what psychology is and should be are often most evident – most argued over – when the different groups are together in the same place to hear a guest speaker identifiable with one branch or another. In other settings – for example when the same people in the same department come together in a departmental meeting to discuss their teaching and administration – these differences of perspective on the nature of psychology are often less evident, and we think and act as a single group.
In the current context of the REF, psychology departments are being pulled in both directions – towards fragmentation and towards unity – and the process resembles in some ways the changes in group identity and alliance – the intergroup dynamics – I have observed elsewhere.

The REF context and intergroup dynamics

One of the things to understand about the REF is that, in common with other drives towards measurement in the Higher Education sector, it encourages a greater emphasis than in the past on ‘outputs’. When I got my first research funding, some years ago, the purpose of the work I was to undertake, I imagined, was to produce findings that would increase knowledge and develop theory. That is a traditional view of the nature of academic research. But it is not the way that we are encouraged to think about our research activity now.
Irrespective of actual scientific contribution, research grants now need to produce outputs. What are outputs? They are measurable and hence publicly verifiable products of the research. The problem is how we define a valuable output. Not all products of research fit the bill, if we use metrics such as journal impact factors. Journal articles count as outputs but not all journal articles are equally valued. Even among all those journals that are peer reviewed in the same subject, such as psychology, some have better impact factors than others. An impact factor is a calculation of the journal’s citation rate, but there are different reasons why one journal has a higher average citation rate than another journal. So, this leaves psychology in a situation whereby some journals are ranked better than others, if we are to use journal impact factors.

Journal impact factors are divisive

It is well known that social psychology journals have lower impact factors than psychiatry and neuroscience journals. It is also well known that this difference is partly a function of different publishing schedules for different (sub-)disciplines, and the size of the readership or access to the journal, rather than a reflection of the scientific worth of different kinds of research. The current REF guidelines tell us that journal impact factors will not be used to evaluate outputs, but there is a lot of doubt about this pledge. The idea that value depends on a journal’s impact factor is persistent.
One thing the emphasis on impact factors has meant in my own university (and I know we are not unusual, as I have heard the same thing from others) is that social psychologists are encouraged to publish in general psychology journals or those from other branches of psychology. This may actually be a good thing. However, any implication that social psychology journals are inferior, and that publications in these journals are less worthy, does not seem such a good idea – either for the morale of researchers or for the development of knowledge.
The second consequence of this unevenness in the measured value of journals is not simply in terms of presentation but in terms of content. One psychology department I know of was advised that they shouldn’t bother with a social psychology group at all, but instead should invest in more fMRI-based researchers. This puts some branches of psychology at risk. The other problem with this sort of approach is, taken to its logical conclusion, leaves psychology not looking too good relative to other sciences. Given the relevance, for receiving government funding, of being a STEM discipline, arbitrary rankings can therefore have serious consequences for the future of psychology as a field.

Pressure from the REF can be a unifying factor

However, in this topsy-turvy world, where measurement is to some extent driving the phenomenon it is meant to measure, there is also a sense in which psychologists from the different areas of the discipline are all in the same boat. At a departmental level, there is a shared cynicism about the REF, about all the extra work involved, and about the pressure on us all to maximize our outputs to meet the 2014 deadline. It is something we complain about together and commiserate collectively in the tea-room. In this context, therefore, the social world is clearly organized not in terms of different groups of psychologists with different ideas about the nature of psychology, but in terms of psychology departments and the government, with senior management mediating between the two.

This is not to say that there are not salient REF-related differences within departments, for someone in the department has to make sure that everyone else is ‘REF-ready’, and in effect to represent the REF to the rest of us and the rest of us to the REF. On occasions, when I have criticised the REF (and the RAE before it), I have been reminded by colleagues that to simply ignore it would be suicidal for a department because of the funding that is bound up with it, and that we must therefore ‘play the game’. To maintain within-group morale, in the pressurised climate of the REF, psychologists should reassure their colleagues that they think their work is valued - over and above their REF rating. One of the findings that has come out of my research on people in stressful situations (mass emergencies) is that the group is a key source of survival and recovery through the social support it offers its members.

(A version of this article was originally published in the BPS Wessex Psychologist Bulletin, No. 8, Spring 2013.)

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