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REF impact case studies – are single researcher or group submissions better?

I’m often asked if it is preferable to submit case studies based on a single person or multiple people. University of Cambridge did well on impact in REF2013 and focussed quite conspicuously on individual researchers via their use of researcher names in case study titles. On the other hand, if you put the search term “centre” into the impact case study database, you get a lot of examples of entire centres that were submitted as case studies. Although it is difficult to know what scores these received we do know of an example from Newcastle of a 4* case study from English that was based on a poetry research centre. The bottom line is that there’s no evidence that either approach is preferable – it really depends on what you’ve got.

So how do you decide which approach to take?

I would assess the significance and reach of each individual strand, and if you have a strand that you’re pretty sure will struggle to get more than 2*, consider carefully whether it brings something to the integrated whole (e.g. the significance is limited but it extends the reach far beyond the other strands). If not, there is a danger that the weaker strands may bring the overall score down.

The only objective way to do this is to create different case studies, with and without integration and get feedback on them each. Best case scenario, if you think you’ve got two strands that warrant 4* in their own right, based on distinct underpinning research, you could double your QR income by separating them. Worst case scenario, you turn your 4* case study into two 3* cases when split apart, and halve your income. So these cases warrant some careful evaluation in my opinion.

If you are going to integrate though, you need to make sure it doesn’t look like a marriage of convenience – you’ll either need some sort of administrative unit (such as the Newcastle research centre) or a strong thematic link, ideally with people from the same administrative unit or if they’re from different units within the institution then linked via co-authorship, so it looks like a genuine collaboration.

A number of Universities have given me case studies to review that they stitched together from two previously separate case studies and I’ve never suspected that this has been done until I’ve been told. The best cases I’ve seen of this are where you have two case studies you’re putting at 2*, which have complementary weaknesses e.g. one is weak on significance while the other is weak on reach, but effectively integrated the weaknesses are overcome to push the case over the 3* boundary.

Deciding the best approach is an art rather than a science, but with good evaluation of draft case studies, it is possible to make an informed choice.

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