Embracing the REF – supporting research excellence in the UK and beyond

This paper looks at the role played by Elsevier over the past decade as data provider and partner in a number of prestigious rankings, customized reports and national assessment exercises. As a central case study, we examine Elsevier's contribution to- and multi-level support for the United Kingdom's (UK's) 2014 Research Excellence Framework (REF). With input from more than 56,000 research staff from 155 institutions across the UK, submitting more than 191,000 research outputs, the 2014 REF is one of the most ambitious national research assessments to date.

This paper examines Elsevier's role in supporting the REF submission and assessment process, but also draws on the testimony of some of the information specialists, administrators and researchers who occupied the "trenches" of the assessment and whose efforts helped make the exercise happen.

Scopus, powering rankings, reports and assessments

Over the past 10 years, Elsevier has emerged as the partner of choice in the fast-developing field of rankings, reports and assessments. Scopus, the largest abstract and citation database of peer-reviewed research information, has been used to calculate the influential QS World University Rankings and has been adopted for US World News & World Report's Best Arab Region Universities rankings . The database has also been chosen to provide data to the 2015 Times Higher Education (THE) World University Rankings and all subsequent rankings by that organization.

At the same time, Elsevier has been commissioned by institutions, funders and policy-makers worldwide to collaborate in the resolution of key research challenges, leading to a series of major reports. View all the reports by visiting the Research Initiatives page. A graphic overview is shown below:

Since 2009, Elsevier has also been involved in a number of national assessment exercises, providing data, citation benchmarking reports and other support. These include the Australian Research Council's Excellence in Research for Australia (ERA) assessment (2010, 2012 and selected again for 2015); Evaluation of Research Quality, VQR; Research Excellence Framework (UK) and Evaluation of R&D Units, Portugal.

Tools and services used by institutions during the REF 2014 assessment exercise

Elsevier deployed a combination of products, services and bespoke functionality to give practical REF support for stakeholders at all levels, including funding bodies, institutions and individual researchers.

  • Scopus – After an open tender process, Scopus was adopted by HEFCE as the principle data source for the REF due to its accuracy and breadth of coverage. Elsevier also provided enhanced customer support for REF participants, including dedicated Scopus Helpdesk support and Scopus training sessions for HEFCE staff, sub-panel members and UK institutions.
  • Pure – The Pure REF module was developed with the Pure UK user group (for which there was a specific REF 2014 working group) as a fully functional submission preparation and management tool for all content types within the scope of the exercise.
  • SciVal – SciVal helped academics and administrators make informed decisions about which papers should be put forward for the REF submissions. It introduced new functionality which made it possible to objectively assess a specific selection of a researcher's work, as well as their complete publication output.
  • REF2014 Results Analysis tool – Used by over 50% of the UK REF2014 submitting institutions, the tool helped with instant performance assessment of the REF results, both nationally and relative to chosen peers, to help establish internal and global responses.