Heartbreaking Works of Staggering Genius: Babies in Higher Education

Attentive readers will have noticed very little activity here at Slewth Press over the past few months and with good reason. I recently completed a significant 9 month project 2 weeks ahead of schedule. Yes, I’ve had a baby!  I began maternity leave at the end of December and Joseph was born in the new year.  Myself and Mr Slewth are delighted.

There is huge ongoing debate over parenting, gender and discrepancies in career progress in higher education at present. This blog is not a baby blog (there are many excellent academic online reads to be had in this area already), however, on this occasion, I would like to indulge my reflections on one topic: tots and publication.

With parenthood come a raft of new experiences and identities. Not to mention physical, emotional, logistical and practical considerations that for women begin long before birth. However, for academics, particular issues loom large.

UK universities are currently in the thrall of preparations for the Research Excellence Framework (REF) in 2014. This government activity is used to determine where substantial research funding should be allocated. In short the REF assesses published output and acts accordingly. Not all academics’ work will be ‘returned’ for this assessment by their institutions, but universities will perform a census of their academics publications. Academics are required to have four items of published ‘output’ (books, articles, papers, chapters) to submit in 2014. These works are ranked on the following scale:

  • Unclassified: Quality that falls below the standard of nationally recognised work. Or work which does not meet the published definition of research for the purposes of this assessment.
  • One star: Quality that is recognised nationally in terms of originality, significance and rigour.
  • Two star: Quality that is recognised internationally in terms of originality, significancy and rigour.
  • Three star: Quality that is internationally excellent in terms of originality, significance and rigour but which falls short of the highest standards of excellence.
  • Four star: Quality that is world-leading in terms of originality, significance and rigour.

In short, if you are a ‘four star’ academic, you are officially a big deal.

Why is this important? As jobs.ac.uk observes:

If you are currently at the start of your career and looking for a permanent job … if you have any strong publications … you are more likely to be hired during this period because you will be able to offer something to your new department’s submission.

Importantly, a strong REF return also sets a precedent for future returns in the minds of employers. The effect is cumulative.

How does this relate to babies?

The REF is controversial in the UK. Debate focusses on the nature of Impact (a central criterion based on ‘reach’ and ‘significance’), the role of Open Access journals (which often lack the impact status of established journals, despite being more widely read), an implicit ranking of journal papers over books, and so on. Controversy also gathers around particular dispensations. Firstly, if you recently completed your PhD, as an Early Career Researcher you will only be required to return two publications. Secondly, if you have undertaken maternity (or paternity) leave, your baby is ‘worth’ one academic publication (which fails to account for the physical stresses of antenatal experience).  An academic who has taken maternity leave need only (at present) return 3 publications out of the mandated 4. Valuing a baby as a -1 publication (of unknown rigour) seems to me to miss a trick. A baby is clearly a work of Staggering Genius. Show me a baby that isn’t ‘world-leading in terms of originality, significance and rigour’! However, as a none publication, it is unclear whether an infant is valued as equivalent to a high quality omission, or lower rated publication. Without some sort of positive recognition the issue remains that any academic CV that lacks publications (due to maternity, paternity, ill health, disability or any other protected context) will look deficient to recruiters, whilst the disclosure of the above remain a moot point in terms of combatting implicit or explicit discrimination.

In any event, I, for one, intend to take my baby out of the bottom drawer and place him on the top shelf.

Some interesting reflections on this area include:

If you have any comments or links to recommend I’d love to hear them. Please post below.

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