Monday, 2 February 2015

3 reasons why REF2014 was good for digital humanities scholars

What can the digital humanities learn from the REF2014 results that gives the discipline a boost and holds out hope for all of us who ply our scholarly trade as digital humanists?

Here I lay out 3 reasons to be cheerful in the midst of the detritus of the Research Excellence Framework (REF).

Before I get there, I must (as is now the norm it seems for any REF posting) lay out my terms of reference and caveats. So, my terms of reference are that these conclusions are mine alone and I'm not knowingly representing anyone else's opinion, not least those of my employer. Whilst, based primarily on the results of the Department of Digital Humanities at King's College London (DDH) they are not about DDH or how well or not they did. I want to write about what those results, and my impressions from talking to other DH research and academic colleagues in the UK, might mean for digital humanities scholars wherever they may be.

Caveats - I have listed below this post my caveats about the REF process and give details of the DDH results for information purposes. I'm not trying to write about the rights and wrongs of the REF folks. Please feel free to comment, to discuss and to argue with these points but I feel that there are 3 reasons to find cheer in the REF outcomes.

Reason 1: digital humanities digital research resources are recognised

One notable concern I and many colleagues across the digital humanities sphere have is how seriously are our digital research outputs recognised by the Academy. There are a number of resources that express this concern (especially in the USA) and I would point to UNC's Digital Humanities Initiative page on valuing and evaluating academic digital humanities practice as a good starting point. This quote from Kristine Bartanen's helpful blog on Digital Scholarship and the Tenure and Promotion Process also expresses early career researcher concerns:
"some are doing ground-breaking work in open source, collaborative scholarly projects. Others, particularly pre-tenure or pre-promotion faculty, are reticent to venture into digital work out of concern for how that work will be acknowledged, valued, and rewarded in existing faculty tenure, promotion, and merit award systems."

Thus one cheering result of the REF2014 is that online research outputs were accepted, validated and recognised by the Panel. DDH submitted a wide range of digital research resources as research publications and outputs - as did many other units across the UK. There is every sign that these were given equal recognition to other forms of research output and that research datasets may be identified as notably worthy of recognition.

This is surely good news for all in digital humanities who want to express scholarship through the act of making and building innovative scholarly research resources? If the REF can see their value, then surely there is hope that the wider Academy will not be too far behind.

Reason 2: digital humanities enhances the research environment

I am going to stick my neck out and suggest that all those who had a digital humanities component to their REF submission did well in the assessed research environment. I believe that having digital humanities in your research mix brings strong potential for performance in those areas valued by the REF - those of: research income levels; external collaboration and partnerships; strong engagement with the wider disciplines and also cross disciplinary approaches.

The purpose of a digital humanities academic department or research unit is two fold in my opinion. It is there to carry out research that maybe aspires to match the collecting instincts of Sir Anthony Panizzi (Principal Librarian to the British Museum) in being useful, elegant, unusual and curious. But further than that the digital humanities should act as a catalyst for research across disciplines, providing a means to enable collaborations and intellectual partnerships that the arts and humanities has aspired to for many years but sometimes fallen well short of achieving. I feel the digital humanities has the potential to do for the humanities what the field of chaos theory did in some respects for the sciences by fostering new insights, enabling fruitful collaborations across disciplines, enhancing our research environments and capturing the public imagination.

Reason 3: digital humanities has impact

The digital component was clearly important to the impact agenda within the REF. Many arts and humanities departments (whatever the discipline) offered evidence of impact using their digital outputs or digital engagement as part of the mix of evidence offered. At King's, digital humanities collaborations underpinned a large number of impact case studies in a diverse range of subjects and they all seem to have done extremely well in the context of the REF mode of measurement. Some of King's REF impact case studies are available on our Research in Action web pages.

Beyond REF, I feel that digital humanities scholarship offers potential for evidence of interactions with a wide range of beneficiaries from our research outcomes and impact on an international scale. Digital humanities is in many ways a foster parent for change and for outcomes that resonate beyond the Academy with the wider public.

Caveats and further information

May I please point you to the excellent blog post from Lorna Hughes "On REF 2014: Why nobody wins unless everybody wins" which pretty much says it all in my opinion as far as the REF goes. For more information from HEFCE on the REF and results go here:
I find myself wondering if there is any metric that could feasibly measure research excellence as the mere act of measuring has had a corrupting effect on that which it measures (by corrupting I mean the data itself not the researchers, but your mileage may vary).

Also, note as there is no specific Digital Humanities Panel some of these results are incredibly hard to compare and that is not my intent in this posting. I merely see some good news for our discipline as a whole here.

Department of Digital Humanities REF2014 results

DDH was submitted with a sister department: Culture, Media & Creative Industries as a single Unit of Assessment to the REF Panel 36 - Communication, Cultural and Media Studies, Library and Information Management. You can see the results for all of the 67 submitting units here:

Together, we submitted 35 staff to REF2014, including six early career staff and a total of 119 research outputs including journal articles, edited books, authored books and digital research resources and online content.

Research Outputs: 69% 4* and 3*; 31% 1* and 2*
Impact case studies: 90% 4*, 10% 3*
Research Environment: 100% 4*

Ranking based on Grade Point Average: 8th of 67
Research Power ranking: 1st
Note: research power ranking takes into account how many submissions were made, because DDH/CMCI together submitted over 30 staff and scored highly in 3* and 4* (particularly in impact and research environment) we jumped over smaller Departments/UoAs that were submitted.

You can read King's rather excitable press release on all these results here.

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