Project Leader Simon Thomson on supporting REF 2021
The Web of Science Group and its Institute for Scientific Information (ISI), after winning a contract in late 2018 from the UK’s four higher-education funding bodies, will provide citation data for the UK Research Excellence Framework (REF) 2021. This large-scale national evaluation, previously undertaken in 2014 and succeeding the Research Assessment Exercises (RAE), will gauge research performance in approximately 150 UK Higher Education Institutions and inform future allocation of research funding. Citation figures from the Web of Science, constituting a precise quantitative measure of research influence, will be added to the evaluative mix.
The REF 2021 arrangement is just one instance of the Web of Science Group partnering in national research-assessment initiatives. Web of Science data, for example, are also underpinning evaluations in Norway, Australia and China.
For REF 2021, the Web of Science Group project leader is Simon Thomson, Senior Scientific Analyst. Trained as a biochemist, Thomson earned a doctorate in protein crystallography at the University of Sheffield. Now a member of the Web of Science Group consulting business, Thomson leads a team of data and policy analysts, producing custom reports and analyses for universities, governments, and research funders. As he notes, “It’s a big and really varied role that includes leading a team, managing projects, talking to clients, producing proposals, writing reports and bringing together project teams from across our business to deliver innovative solutions.”
Recently, Thomson answered a few questions about his work on the REF 2021 project.
Q: How did your role with REF come about, and what does the task consist of?
Thomson: This project involves a team of staff from across our business: editorial, customer support, bibliometric expertise, technology and custom data. My role is to coordinate these different workstreams and to be the central point of contact for the REF team. I am also working with the REF peer-review panels, who will use our data as part of their assessment of UK research, to discuss best practice in using bibliometrics, and with UK universities to understand how they’re preparing for the REF and to address their concerns and questions.
Because of my experience in leading these kinds of custom projects I was asked by Caroline Birkle, who is the Web of Science Group executive sponsor for the REF project, to lead it. It’s challenging and complex, and it means I get to work with talented colleagues both within our business and at Research England – that’s one of the main funding agencies – as well as at UK universities.
The ideal outcome will be a REF where all stakeholders feel engaged and are confident that our citation data have been informative and appropriately used.”
– Simon Thomson, Web of Science Group
Q: How would you describe the scale and importance of the REF program? From your perspective, what is the ideal outcome?
The REF is the UK’s system for assessing the quality of research in UK higher-education institutions. It is a process of expert review, carried out by expert panels made up of senior academics, international members, and research users. The UK Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) submit information about three distinct elements of research which are reviewed by the panels: the quality of outputs (that is, publications, performances, and exhibitions), their impact beyond academia, and the environment that supports research. The REF is hugely important to UK HEIs, because it is used to provide accountability for public investment and as an indicator of prestige, and it determines how a substantial proportion of public research funding is allocated. The ideal outcome will be a REF where all stakeholders feel engaged and are confident that our citation data have been informative and appropriately used. [Editor’s note: Please see also the recent ISI Global Research Report on the proper use of citation measures, “Profiles, not metrics.”]
Q: How does the Web of Science Group and its data fit into this process?
We are currently working with the REF team (who are running REF 2021), the panel members and the UK Forum for Responsible Research Metrics to define exactly which data the REF panels will receive and how they will be presented to allow them to make an informed peer-review decision, and we look forward to continuing this dialogue.
Our data will be used by 11 of the 34 subject-based expert panels to inform, but not to make, their assessment of the quality of research outputs. While the use of citation data is a limited component of a much bigger evaluative process, it has the potential to directly impact the funding that HEIs receive. We therefore have a big responsibility to make sure that our data are used correctly, interpreted appropriately, and are of the highest quality. It is a privilege and a demonstration of confidence for the Web of Science Group to have been selected to play such an important role in this high-profile project, and we take the responsibility very seriously.