What is the REF?

The Research Excellence Framework (REF) is conducted by the four UK higher education funding bodies. It is a process of expert review, carried out by expert panels for each of the 34 subject-based units of assessment (UoAs), under the guidance of the four main panels. Expert panels are made up of senior academics, international members, and research users. 

For each submission, three distinct elements are assessed: 

  • The quality of outputs (e.g. publications, performances, and exhibitions);
  • Their impact beyond academic;
  • The environment that supports research.

Aims of the REF

The aim of the assessment is to secure the continuation of a world-class, dynamic and responsive research base across the full academic spectrum within UK higher education. This is expected to be achieved through the threefold purpose of the REF: 

  1. To provide accountability for public investment in research and produce evidence of the benefits of this investment.
  2. To provide benchmarking information and establish reputational yardsticks, for use within the HE sector and for public information. 
  3. To inform the selective allocation of funding for research. 


Each submission in each UoA will contain a common set of data comprising:

  • Information on all staff with significant responsibility for research on the census date, 31 July 2020; and information about former staff to whom submitted outputs are attributed.
  • Details of accessible outputs produced between 1 January 2014 and 31 December 2020.
  • Case studies describing specific examples of impacts achieved between 1 August 2013 and 31 July 2020 (31 December 2020 for case studies significantly affected by, or related, to the COVID 19 pandemic), underpinned by research undertaken between 1 January 2000 and 31 December 2020.
  • Data about research doctoral degrees awarded, research income and income-in-kind related to the period 1 August 2013 to 31 July 2020.
  • An institutional level environment state, and a completed template describing the submitted unit's research and impact environment, related to the period 1 August 2013 to 31 July 2020.

REF Open Access Policy

The four UK funding bodies believe that outputs of publicly funded research should be freely accessible and widely available, in order to help make research more efficient and impactful. 

The REF open access policy is designed to provide a set of minimum requirements for open access, while encouraging an environment where researchers and HEIs move beyond the minimum requirements. 

The open access policy applies to journal articles and conference contributions (with an International Standard Serial Number (ISSN)) which are accepted from publication from 1 April 2016 and published on or before 31 December 2020. Research outputs should be made open access in order to be eligible in REF 2021. Outputs should be desposited, discovereable, and free to read, download and search within by anyone with an internet connection. 

To comply with open access policy, authors must: 

  1. Deposit the autor-accepted manuscript version of their output in an institutional repository, a repository shared between multiple institutions or a subject repository, within a specified timeframe. 
  2. Outputs accepted for publication between 1 April 2016 and 31 March 2018 must be despotied as soon after the point of acceptance as possible, and no later than three months after the date of publication
  3. The output must be presented in a way that allows it to be discovered by readers and search engines, typically achieved through storage and open presentation of a bibliographic or metadata record in a repository. 
  4. The output must be presented in a way that allows anyone with internet access to search electornically within the text, read it and download without charge. 


Authors and institutions can meet the policy requirement without necessarily incurring ayn additional open access publication costs. 

The funding bodies reconise that the current strucutres and software solutions for open access are at an early stage, and that it will take time to fully establish open access as an intrinsic part of the research process. In view of this, there are measures and exceptions which have been developed to provide a degree of tolerance of non-compliance. More information on open access exceptions can be found on pages 58-60 of the REF Guidance on Submissions. 

Insitutions are not expected to correspond with previous institutions to evidence the outputs published while a staff member was a previous employed elsewhere fulfilled the requirements of the policy.

Frequently Asked Questions

Use these tabs to help answer FAQs that are often raised regarding the REF. The official website for the REF also contains its own list of FAQs found here

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Participating institutions must submit all eligible staff with significant responsibility for research.

To be eligible for REF 2021, staff must have a contract of at least 0.2 FTE on 31 July 2020 with the collegiate University, of which the primary function is to undertake “research only” or “teaching and research”. Research only staff must demonstrate they are research independent, whilst teaching and research staff must demonstrate they have significant responsibility for research.

Staff with significant responsibility for research are those for whom explicit time and resources are made available to engage actively in independent research, and that is an expectation of their job role.

A minimum of one output, unless you have exceptional circumstances.

Unlike REF 2014, the number of outputs required is calculated at the level of the submitting unit, rather than linked to an individual. Each individual returned to REF 2021 must have at least one output attributed to them, unless they have experienced circumstances that mean that they do not have an eligible output. A maximum of five outputs can be attributed to an individual. Overall, a unit has to submit outputs equal to 2.5 times the full-time equivalent (FTE) of submitted. This flexibility is often referred to as ‘decoupling’ as the output requirement is no longer fully tied to individuals, allowing UOAs to choose which outputs to submit from the pool of outputs produced by their staff.


Institutions must enable their staff to declare any circumstances that might have affected their ability to undertake research and must make appropriate adjustments to their expectations of your contribution to the output pool. Depending on the cumulative effect of circumstances on your unit, it may decide to use the flexibility offered by decoupling to shape the output pool (i.e. where some staff submit more and some submit fewer than the 2.5 outputs average, ensuring everyone has at least one and no more than five outputs attributed to them) OR may request a reduction in the total number of outputs required from the unit. In addition, if you do not have a REF-eligible output, your unit may request that you be submitted with zero outputs instead of the minimum of one.


If you change institution during the REF cycle, your new institution can submit your outputs, provided they employ you on an eligible contract on the census date (31 July 2020). In addition, your former institution can submit outputs that you produced while under their employment.


REF assesses the impact of a unit not the impact of individuals. Impact case studies therefore can only be submitted by the unit where the underpinning research was carried out.


The focus for assessing impact is on the impact of the submitted unit’s research, not the impact of individuals’ research. The number of case studies required in each submission will be determined by the number (FTE) of Category A submitted staff returned in the submission, starting at a minimum of 2 case studies per unit.

If you are a member of Oxford’s Social Science Division, contact Tim Davies, REF Project Manager.