The Fishy State of Research Impact Reporting in UK Higher Education

If you are on social media presently, you might be aware that there is a storm brewing about Research Fish, which traces itself in part due to the Innocently Curious Professor Christopher Jackson:

For those who are not in the UK system, Research Fish is a company which collects and refines ‘impact’ metrics from work performed under the funding of many UK funding agencies (e.g. UKRI and Wellcome). [Note RF is used by non-UK agencies/companies/charities/Universities too..]

In their words:

Researchfish is used globally by funders and universities to track research and evidence impact.

The platform uses technology and algorithms to collect outcomes and outputs of research from the web, external data sources and the researchers themselves.

The gathering of Research Fish data is an annual exercise undertaken by most UK grant holders (PIs, some PhD students, and many administrators) and this cycle can be seen in the Google trend data:

The controversy of the current storm was brought out by Prof Robin Bedford critiquing the name of Research Fish, and in turn Research Fish replied threatening with the phrase: “We have shared our concerns with your funder.”

Now the whole saga of this episode is quite a bit to keep track of, there are a few good free-to-read news articles (Researchfish accused of ‘intimidating’ academics, Researchfish apologises again as online backlash grows)and I’m collecting parts of this within a twitter thread (unrolled here on 21 March).

My interest in this story was brought about it’s adjacent timing with a US R1 Professor calling out the use of social media by scholars:

As you might imagine, I have strong views which share the value of social media for academics (expanded on in “The Reward and Risk of Social Media for Academics”).

I assert that social media provides a platform to unify and support the coalescence of academics to share good, and bad, practice and to work beyond institutional silos in search of better academic practice.

The Research Fish incident highlights a major negative side, which is wrapped up in the climate of ‘cancel culture’ — specifically, there are cases where powerful individuals / institutions which can use social media to conduct ‘surveillance’ and use the information they find in a hostile manner (in this case, RF has threatening academics which has led to individuals having their careers adversely affected (two cases have been made public: Prof Gregor Larson and Prof Michelle Oyen; and I know of at least one other case).

How does this link to ‘cancel culture’? It remains remarkable that a significant fraction of those individuals who have been ‘cancelled’ get to talk about it with (often) a greater platform than before. i.e. those with power use the onslaught of criticism shared on social media to justify ‘punching down’ on those with less power.

Back to our original case, we know that Research Fish is a company who is instructed by major funders (including UKRI) and that following the outcry on social media, UKRI had to issue a statement:

However, we know that Research Fish had been trawling for negative comments as far back as 2016 — which started ‘in jest’:

However in 2019 — this surveillance by Research Fish became quite hostile, with direct snitch tagging of NERC Science and the University of Oxford:

We are incredibly lucky that Professor Greger Larson shared the consequences of this hostile surveillance [note that NERCScience is a sub-council under UKRI]:

While, we still do not know what the outcome will be of this sorry affair. We have to be aware that in as early as 2019, if not before, the Research Councils and at least the University of Oxford, were aware of the practices of Research Fish, and this has resulted in the sanction of at least one Academic.

Research Fish is instructed, and paid for, as part of the Research Fish ‘Community of Practice’ by UKRI, Wellcome trust, other funders, as well as many UK-based Universities including The University of Oxford, Imperial College London, The University of Cambridge, University College London and so many more (these examples are pulled due to their links to this story and me).

In summary, I think that Research Fish saga is a symptom of a deeply rotten ‘impact’ agenda, with significant historical issues embedded in the UK higher educational system. We are only just starting to see trickle out into the public domain. Here, we can see that social media is empower for rank-and-file academics to energise themselves as a collective to try to fix their shared distrust in a broken system.

I’ll close with this lasting tweet from Jeremy Barraud, Director of Research Operations Governance at UCL:

Dr Ben Britton is an Associate Professor at the University of British Columbia, and holds a visiting Readership at Imperial College London. He has been fortunate to have never submitted a Research Fish submission. He can be found tweeting as @bmatb.

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