Many of us have read with great interest how the REF panel report summarised the ‘state of the art’ of legal scholarship in the
(see pp 70-75 of the Panel C Report).
It is the aim of this post to reflect on some of the rhetoric of this report
(noting that sometimes the most important things are those left unsaid). So,
here we go: UK
3. The sub-panel received outputs judged to be of world-leading quality from over 85 per cent of submissions and the overwhelming majority of work submitted was of at least internationally recognised quality providing valuable knowledge to the field, confirming that excellent research and scholarship are being conducted in very many law schools across the
Ok, great to hear, but, of course, most of the panel members were
professors too … UK
4. The sub-panel firmly shares the view of its predecessors that peer review remains the most reliable method of assessing research quality in law.
Meaning that panel thinks that they did an excellent job, ie trust our judgement!
[id] We found instances of world-leading or internationally excellent quality regardless of the form of the output.
That’s a very diplomatic statement. Yes, it may be fair to say that there were ‘instances’ of world-leading research in books, book chapters, journal articles etc. But the crucial - and unanswered - issue is whether in average one of these output types did not receive higher scores.
6. There was a large volume of outputs covering several core areas of law, including public international law, criminal law, criminal justice and criminology, legal theory (broadly defined and covering a wide range of approaches), public law and human rights, commercial law and EU law. From its assessment of the sub-fields included in submissions, the sub-panel considers that law and religion, intellectual property and IT law, transitional justice, gender, sexuality and the law, and law and finance all appear to be developing fields of interest…. We found numerous examples of world-leading quality across the range of outputs submitted.
Again, a very diplomatic statement. Here too, the panel could have done some number-crunching in order to see whether publications in some areas of law did better than others. PS: interesting how they identify the ‘core’ (eg, international and EU law included but not intellectual property).
8. The sub-panel regards it as an indicator of the strength of the discipline that world-leading work was demonstrated across the wide variety of methodologies employed in legal research and scholarship including doctrinal, theoretical, contextual, historical, socio-legal, critical and empirical approaches. Bodies of knowledge and thought were drawn upon from across the social sciences and the humanities. ….9. The sub-panel views this trend towards methodological diversity and interdisciplinarity as evidence of the growing sophistication of legal scholarship as a body of knowledge and understanding with wide-ranging insights, impacts and implications for the social world…
Ok, methodological diversity is great but is not something missing? Legal scholarship can be thought to operate in a triangle of social sciences, humanities and legal practice. The report highlights the first two elements but it does not seem to regard practical legal scholarship as being of high REF quality.
13. The impact of research was usually demonstrated by how it had informed the development of policy and new legislation and influenced the work of national, EU and international policy makers, judges and legislators… There was less consideration of the importance of research in improving NGO campaigning and input to policy or service provision, and less mention of the impact on end service users.
This issue can be related to the previous comment, ie research which provides practical help may not be rated highly as an output. In addition, it may show that legal scholars like to think in ‘macro categories’ (legislation, case law, law enforcement etc); thus, this can be read as an encouragement to collaborate with disciplines such as psychology and anthropology in order to understand individual behaviour.
22. A number of units set out structures involving the organisation of research into groups, centres or clusters and provided convincing examples of how these have stimulated and fostered vibrant research cultures. However, in some cases it was not always clear how these were providing meaningful support for research and structures sometimes appeared rather over-elaborate and confusing…..
That’s an interesting statement given that the proliferation of those clusters may often be driven by universities’ desire to show to the REF that they promote excellence in a particular area (and not ‘just’ across the board). But it seems that this may sometimes be counter-productive.
[id] The sub-panel saw impressive examples of research environments regardless of the size of the unit, the organisation of its work or its strategic focus and is convinced that there is no one strategic model for a larger or smaller unit which will necessarily deliver research success.
So, this statement seems to challenge the ‘size matters’ trend, eg the biggish Doctoral Training Centres.
26… The trend, noted above, to a more blended, multi- and interdisciplinary approach in research production in some aspects of law was reflected in the description of a number of multi-departmental and multi-institution networks and groupings providing both critical mass and the pooling of infrastructural resources for the production of programmes of research.
That’s an interesting qualification of the previous statements - ie in this respect clusters are indeed useful and size may matter, also saying that form and substance need to go hand in hand.