Business History in the 2021 REF

6 06 2022

The REF is the main instrument the UK government uses to evaluate and incentivise research performance in academic units in universities and other research organisations. Effectively, panels of disciplinary experts gather every seven or so years to evaluate the research calibre of all departments/units within their discipline and then rank those units accordingly. So-called QR (Quality Related) funding from the taxpayer is then allocated to the units with the best research performance and is then used to support research activity. Although there was some discussion early in the pandemic that the REF system might be scrapped entirely so that research funding could be placed on more of a private enterprise basis, that idea was never implemented by Amanda Solloway, the then Minister of Science. (In October 2020 she announced that the 2021 REF would go ahead and that she no intention of disrupting its ‘important work’) . However, the date of the REF census of research performance was pushed back because of the pandemic, which meant the results of the REF were not published until early May 2022. (For the REF rankings of UK management schools, see here).

I’m pretty certain that the research outputs of most people who work in the field of business history were submitted to Unit of Assessment 17, although some scholars may have had their outputs read and scored by members of the Economics and Econometrics unit of assessment. It is therefore of tremendous interest to see what the REF panel members for Business and Management Studies think about the contribution of business-historical research to business and management studies. Charles Harvey, a very distinguished business history at the University of Newcastle, forwarded this analysis of business history and the REF to his fellow members of the Association of the Business Historians. His insights are useful because they give us a sense of how REF reviewers likely to view business historical research outputs in the future. Research evaluation, like beauty pageants, has a huge subjective element and is highly culturally specific. What might be considered good research in one national context would not be considered very good in another country. It is therefore very important for business historians in the UK to think about what the REF results reveal about the true preferences of the population of individuals who acted as REF reviewers in 2021, since that population will likely be very similar at the time of the next REF, which will likely be in 2022. The Business and Management academics this time round were predominantly academics at UK universities (a few practitioners from private industry also acted as reviewers), are people with the rank of full professor, and are British citizens either by birth or naturalisation. EDI considerations related to gender and race influenced how the REF panels are formed and every REF panel must include strong representation from each of the four nations of the UK. I strongly suspect that if there is a REF in the future, the same sorts of principles will inform how the REF juries are appointed. I also know that REF panellists take their fiduciary duties to the taxpayer seriously, just as citizens who serve on criminal case juries generally take their work seriously.

For an individual researcher, several key points stand out from Charles’s analysis. First, the reviewers tend to respect and give brownie points to publications based on solid archival research. That’s useful data for people planning how to allocate their scarce research time. Second, those books that were submitted to the REF were highly rated by the scholars who read them. (Knowing how academics think about the world, I bet that books published by the presses of ancient universities scored very highly indeed). Third, business historians must continue to work to contribute to theoretical debates.

May 2022
Overview report by Main Panel C
and Sub-panels 3 to24
Business History

  1. The upward trajectory of the Business History discipline related to Business and Management since REF 2014 is reflected in the increase in both the number and quality of submitted outputs.
  2. The majority of the submitted outputs were deemed to be world-leading or internationally excellent, in terms of originality, rigour and significance. Outputs displayed strength from both empirical and theoretical perspectives. In addition, a pleasing number of outputs addressed methodological advancements within the domain. While the vast majority of submitted outputs were journal articles, authored books were also a feature, with the majority of submitted books judged to be of world- leading quality.
  3. Several key issues were characteristic of the discipline’s development since REF 2014 and worthy of note. Firstly, the growing importance of the role of Business History in advancing theory; secondly, the increasing interdisciplinarity of the area, evident, for example, in the emergence of historical organisation studies. Methodologically, the discipline embraced diverse approaches. However, archival research dominated those outputs judged to be world-leading. A striking feature of the discipline was the very high level of rigour evident across the returned outputs.
  4. Business History clearly reaches across the range of B&M disciplines, making contributions, for example, to Entrepreneurship, International Business, Marketing, Retailing, Strategy, Accounting, Political Economy, Finance and Economics.



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