‘Lunchbox Tuesdays’: New Weekly Lunchtime Group at the Institute of Historical Research

Part of the remit of History Lab Plus is to help our members to overcome the sense of isolation that they sometimes feel as they finish their PhDs and contemplate their next steps. History Lab Plus is therefore happy to sponsor Lunchbox Tuesdays, a new weekly lunchtime group for late PhD and early career historians. This group is not intended as a seminar or forum for historical debate, but an informal way for individuals at similar academic levels to socialise over lunch.

Lunchbox Tuesdays will be held every Tuesday, 1-2pm in the common room of the Institute of Historical Research in the North Block of Senate House in London. The first meeting will be held on Tuesday, 4 November.

The idea is that people researching in London, rather than just those based there, will be able to drop in for cake and chat (did we mention cake?).
For more information about these meetings, please visit the Lunchbox Tuesdays Facebook page. Queries can also be directed at the organiser of Lunchbox Tuesdays, Kelly Spring, at kelly.spring@manchester.ac.uk.

As History Lab Plus is a national organisation, we are actively looking to sponsor similar informal social groups all over the UK. If you are interested in starting up something in your region, please e-mail historylabplus@gmail.com

‘History within the Academy: Ask the Experts’

On 27th June we held the third ‘Ask the Experts’ event in London with the support of the Royal Historical Society. The event was intended to bring experts from the academy to comment on key issues relevant to early career researchers and those approaching the end of their PhD.

Our panel of experts: Professor Arthur Burns (King’s College London), Professor Margot Finn (UCL), Professor Peter Mandler (Cambridge & President, Royal Historical Society), Professor Nicola Miller (UCL) and Professor Mary Vincent (Sheffield).

The panel on … academic jobs

  • The appointment committee will judge you on the day on how you’ll fit in the department. It is important that you have more than just the book and your research to make yourself a functioning colleague. Have a store of experiences and draw on them on your CV and in person. If you’ve organised events, won funding, handled administration then you’re bringing more to the table. There’s plenty of information out there on institutions, so do your research. A really good application letter will demonstrate a thoughtful consideration of how you would operate in that department.
  • Think widely and think long term. How do you fit into the profession? What sort of historian are you and what do you want to become? Departments look for a sense of how people will develop. Look across the College and School. What interdisciplinary connections could you make? Do you have interests in other disciplines and departments?
  • Presentations are a test for your teaching skills. Can you engage the audience? You must convey what type of historian you are. Those outside your subject will wonder what you’re going to bring. Demonstrate a sense of self that goes beyond the dissertation.
  • It is rare that appointment committees are homogenous so you must consider how to speak to potentially different audiences in the interview. A panel member from outside the discipline will take a different approach.
  • References are still an integral part of the appointment. If you don’t have a reference from your supervisor this can appear odd, and the same goes for your current institution. Consider asking your external examiner to be a reference.
  • Age is not a factor. You are dated from the award of your PhD. Academics might come from different career backgrounds and can bring with them much experience as a result.

Peter Mandler strongly recommended an academic career. He acknowledged that because it was still desirable, it was therefore grossly overstocked. Despite early setbacks, he never thought it wasn’t worth persisting. While acknowledging the increase in pressure and fewer resources, ultimately the academic profession is more vibrant and outward looking than ever before. You need to be a good teacher, a good communicator, be able to engage wider audiences, and be interdisciplinary. The job specification is tougher than it used to be but far more inspiring.

The panel on … public engagement

  • If public engagement is done well it can change the way you think about doing history. It forces you to ask ‘so what?’ You can’t assume your audience have read any literature. What is the big question you’re trying to ask and answer? Your audience can spark new thoughts.
  • Public engagement can be regarded as a diversion, but not if you do it well and thoughtfully. Most job descriptions will mention it. Seek out opportunities and look beyond just museums and archives to smaller organisations.
  • As an early career researcher you can do quite a lot on a fairly small scale: organising a small exhibition or workshop can be achievable and generate feedback. There are sources of money around for this type of work.
  • Some departments may have a greater tradition of public engagement than others. It is up to you to look at local activities and consider how the wider themes and projects of the department can fit in. There are passionate local historians, heritage workers, and genealogists working outside the university. Even if you don’t work on British local history, there are still opportunities.
  • Margot Finn’s project on The East India Company at Home, 1757-1857 is a good example of research that involved many people and organisations beyond academia, and produced output suitable for both academic and non-academic audiences.

The panel on … Open Access and REF2020

  • The Open Access policy doesn’t apply until 2016 but it is worth getting used to. As a matter of academic practice we should get used to submitting the accepted manuscript in an institutional repository. If you don’t have an institution or your institution doesn’t have a repository, try your PhD-granting institution. But don’t worry unduly- you are exempt until your first academic role.
  • You should be working on your best work and publishing in the forms you feel are best. Don’t be put off publishing in refereed journals. It is harder to be visible in edited collections and the process can be haphazard with editing and scrutiny. The peer review process for an article in a quality journal will make your article better.
  • Open access only applies to articles in journals. You have to publish in compliant journals and there are a limited number, but you can ask advice from your University. Peter Mandler advised submitting to compliant journal if you can but it may not be possible. You may publish anywhere if that journal is the most appropriate for you.US journals especially from learned societies may not be compliant.
  • Fewer and better publications are better in the medium to long term. Publish really good things. The maximum number you can submit to the REF is four items.
  • Beware of pirates. Don’t use journals you’ve never heard of, or even not used their content. Never pay for open access. Any reputable journal should have a gold and green option. Green helps for those without institutional support.
  • If you are RCUK funded then your dissertation should be made open access. Check what embargo periods are available and check the mandate of your own institution. There is huge variation so you need to be informed. If you’re not funded, you’re not required to do anything but if you want to be employable in the UK you need to be compliant and keep an eye on the rules.The Royal Historical Society provides accurate advice aimed at historians funded by RCUK.

At the end of the afternoon we heard about plans for the Royal Historical Society website which will feature specific resources for early career researchers on topics such as: presenting your work, grant applications, and publishing. The new website will launch in October and will be a valuable resource for ECRs.
We are grateful to the panel of experts for giving up their time as well as Dr Adam Smith for his assistance and the Royal Historical Society for generously supporting the event.

Helen Steele, History Lab Plus Representative to the Royal Historical Society.

History Lab Plus/Royal Historical Society: Employing Temporary Teaching Staff in History

As History Lab Plus has expanded its remit over the last few years, we have collaborated with a range of institutions and professional organisations to ensure a voice for early-career historians in wider discussions about the future of the discipline, on issues including open-access publishing, postdoctoral funding and employment and postgraduate training, amongst many others. One issue, however, which has been raised by our members more than any other has been the proliferation of short-term temporary teaching contracts and the extent to which the development and well-being of early-career historians is taken seriously. As a new academic year starts, we know that this issue is at the forefront of many of our minds.

We were therefore delighted to work with the Royal Historical Society to draft Employing Temporary Teaching Staff in History: Code of Good Practice (click for pdf.), which is being sent to all Heads of Department (or equivalent) in the UK this week. This short document arose from discussions between History Lab Plus and the Royal Historical Society. It is based on the results of a survey of over 200 postdocs and research students carried out by History Lab Plus in late 2012, asking about their experiences as early career historians. The results indicated that for those on short-term teaching contracts a few simple things, such as being included on email lists and invited to seminars, could make a big difference to their experience of a department. We hope that this Code of Good Practice will serve as a helpful reminder of policies that can help temporary teachers, many of whom will become permanent academics and all of whom are crucial to the vitality and high standards of the profession. It has been endorsed by the RHS, History Lab Plus and History UK.

The Code will be regularly reviewed and we welcome any comments and/or suggested changes. Please send these to Jane Gerson, Research & Communications Officer at j.gerson@ucl.ac.uk

Please do also feel free to add comments or suggestions to this post or get in touch with History Lab Plus and we will pass on your ideas to the RHS. We hope this will lead to further discussion of the experiences of postdoctoral teachers in History.

Early Career Historians and the REF

By our Academic Uncles, Glen O’Hara and Andrew Dilley

In our last blog we gave a few pieces of hopefully timely advice for those seeking an academic post in the run up to the REF2014 submission date, which fell last December. In this as our next blog, we offer a broader overview of the Research Excellence Framework (REF) for those seeking academic jobs in the UK over the next few years. The REF plays a major role in shaping patterns of research and the recruitment of researcher-active staff in the UK, and a working knowledge of the REF is therefore an asset when seeking an academic job.

What is the REF?
For several decades public funding for research in the United Kingdom has been distributed through two mechanisms. First, grants for individual programmes of research are awarded by bodies such as the AHRC (Arts and Humanities Research Council) or the ESRC (Economics and Social Science Research Council). Secondly, ‘Quality Related’ (QR) funding is distributed by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), the Scottish Research Council, the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales, and the Department for Employment and Learning in Northern Ireland.

QR funding is allocated on the basis of the Research Excellent Framework (formally Research Assessment Exercise or RAE). HEFCE runs the REF on behalf of all UK funding councils—so what follows applies across the UK, at least for now. Disciplines (or ‘units of assessment’) are judged on the quality of their research, along with several other elements (‘impact’, research environment and the like), during defined assessment periods. These results then determine the funding allocation in the next period: the REF is intended to reward and sustain established pools of research excellence, while providing a stable ‘baseline’ of funding that is not subject to the chance and variation involved in constant bidding for individual awards.

The last assessment period ran from 2008 to the end of 2013, and this present one began on 1 Jan 2014 and will probably end at some point in 2019 or 2020. At the end of each assessment period, units submit four publications (or ‘outputs’) published within the period produced by each full-time researcher. Each institution can choose whether or not to include a particular researcher in their submission. Four expert panels are responsible for grading the submissions and each panel has slightly different rules. Each panel is, in turn, divided into subject-based sub-panels—History, taken with History of Art, has its own sub-panel. Each output is assessed by a member of the sub-panels of graded on a scale of 1*-4* (where 1* is ‘nationally recognised’ and 4* is ‘world leading’). The individual grades are anonymised. They are then combined with the results for impact and research environment (also graded by the sub-panels) to produce a ‘quality profile’: a score intended to reflect the overall calibre of the discipline or department within each university.

Why does the REF matter to me?

It matters for two reasons. First, it generates a sizable and relatively stable source of funding. The quality profile is used to distribute QR funding, and most historical research is currently supported by QR funding. Only research judged to be of 3* or 4* quality attracts funds and this is true across the UK. Second, the REF results generate status within and for universities keen to boast of their panoply of top-rated units.

Many universities are very keen to play the system to maximise both status and income. They put in place complex strategies to maximise their results, in particular to ensure they only submit staff whose research will generate a decent proportion of 3*s or 4*s. Many of the most important ramifications for Early Career Researchers are the result of this selectivity.

Quite simply, if you are employed in a UK university to conduct research, you will be expected to deliver a ‘REF Hand’. That means not just four publications between 1 January 2014 and 2019/20 (and possibly/preferably well before), but also four publications that the institution wishes to submit. Every selection panel will have at least one member who understands the REF (or thinks they do) and your research plans and job application have to show how you will meet REF criteria.

Listen carefully 007: Some important details and their implications

There are a few details that it is worth being aware of:

  1. Are all publications equal?
    In principle all publications (that means anything in the public domain, including on a website) are judged equally. In practice many institutions (and a not inconsiderable number of historians) are very wary about non-traditional publications – particularly those that aren’t peer reviewed. Bear this in mind when planning research and constructing a CV.
  2. Do books count for two?
    No. Some ‘outputs’ can count double in the REF if they take more ‘effort’ to produce than a standard output (for which, read: a journal article). For History and other related disciplines on Panel D (Arts and Humanities), a book submitted with a case for double weighting could be submitted with an ‘insurance piece’ in case the case for double weighting was rejected. So a book can count for two (and History sub-panels, appreciating the value of the book for the subject, have been supporters of double weighting), but it is not guaranteed. Equally, an apparently much shorter output (a database, for instance) could count for two if it took considerable effort to produce. All of these things are judged on a case by case basis after submission.
  3. What is overlap and how is it treated?
    Overlap occurs where one output includes elements of another output. Classically in the case of someone early in their career, this might include an article that later appears (perhaps in adapted form) in a book. The rules of the last REF stated that where overlap occurred, the larger item would be assessed disregarding materials in the smaller items (so you only get credit for the same work once). Many institutions, however, resisted submitting any overlapping items at all, considering the rules ambiguous, or finding it hard to predict the grades that overlapping items would receive, leading to the oft-heard question: ‘how good is Blogg’s book without Chapter Five?’.
  4. What about Open Access?
    There is a tremendous policy drive now to make publications (especially journal articles) freely available to the public, who, after all, funded much of the research work involved in the first place. This can be achieved either by making them available on the web at the point of publication (so-called ‘gold’ open access, often with the researcher or their institution paying a charge to publishers) or with a delay through an institutional repository (known as ‘green’ open access). This area is too complex to enter into here in detail (stay tuned for an upcoming post by History Lab Plus Chairs Kimm Currran and Cath Feeley), though a great deal has recently become clearer about how this will work in practice. The REF will probably require all journal articles and conference publications to be made available through an institutional repository. Open access requirements will not apply to monographs or book chapters. The ‘green’ route (where a version of the article is made available with a delay) is permitted without further payment to the journal as copyright holder. Certain crucial details have not been finalised, especially the length of the delay, or embargo, permitted under the green route. It will not be less than 12 months, and probably no longer than 24 months. The best advice at this stage is for those seeking jobs to keep an eye out for the announcement of the finalised rules and check that any journals you submit to comply with the ‘green’ open access rules. Non-UK journals may need to be prompted or asked to reveal their own policies and attitudes. Needless to say, you won’t be alone in finding this a puzzle: a lot of scholars are delaying submitting articles to journals until this is clear.
  5. Aren’t there dispensations for Early Careers Researchers?
    Yes, but they may not help you now. Basically the REF considers your research career to start when you get an academic job with research in your contract. For the first (approximately) four years of your career you are permitted to make a smaller submission based on the number of years you have been employed to conduct research at the point of submission. So, if on that date you are one or two years in, you submit one output, three years in, two outputs, four years in, three outputs. So only those who get academic jobs after August 2015 will get any relief from the REF in 2019/20. As an aside, there are other dispensations. In particular, part-time staff are only required to make a reduced submission, and those going on maternity leave are allowed one fewer outputs. If you have special circumstances it would be worth checking how the REF treats them (see the links below).
  6. Do I have to have Impact (whatever that is)?
    No. ‘Impact’ is assessed in the REF, and seeks to gauge the benefits generated by research findings in a unit of assessment for non-academic audiences (although some ‘impacts’ in universities also count). Each unit submits a certain number of case studies (two for the first 15 full time staff members and a further one for each 10 thereafter). Impact must be based on research published by researchers in the unit in the 20 years preceding the census date (1999 for the next REF). What this means is that not every researcher has to have impact – only a selection of those returned by the institution. The assessment of impact is new, and how this will work in practice is very unclear. It is more likely that the potential future impact of work as yet unpublished will be of interest to prospective employers (since this would count under the byzantine rules). If you might publish work once they give you a job that may go on to benefit academic audiences, that’s great. If you are not about to inspire a TV documentary, revamp a museum, or advise the UN, don’t worry too much. Emphasise the quality of your publications, but just also make sure that you think about how your work might benefit non-academic audiences in case you are asked about this in any interview.

So what can I do to maximise my chances of a job?

The first step is to realise that when applying for jobs, or at least permanent jobs, you will be judged by a panel which will be looking for four decent publications by the end of 2019 (and preferably a lot earlier), unless you are likely to be an Early Career Researcher—i.e. you get your first research job after August 2015. You need to plan your possible publications and make sure that they are clear on your C.V. The classic history ‘REF Hand’ is a book plus three articles/book chapters. If you have unconventional but substantial outputs (content-rich websites or databases, for instance) make sure that these are clearly explained on your CV and in your application. Make sure your outputs don’t overlap too much. Finally, be ambitious with your publications. Aim for good journals, substantial sounding book chapters, and decent monograph publishers. Don’t waste time with too many conference proceedings. Avoid large publications that are not peer reviewed. All of this will reassure a selection panel of that your work is good. Only publications after 1 Jan 2014 will count to the next REF. A track record will help, but clear future plans are essential. Keep an eye on the evolving rules on Open Access for journals, and make sure you tap reliable sources (subject associations, HEFCE’s website, etc) and not the blogosphere. There is a lot of misinformation out there.

Bear in mind that everything we have written is based on the rules for REF2014. They may change but until they do, selection panels will work on the same assumptions. Again, keep an eye out for any changes.

Before getting too disheartened, bear in mind that much of this would have been necessary anyway. A clear ambitious research agenda is the key to getting an academic job in any case. But more than anything, the REF makes it necessary to tie this to a clear set of planned publications.

I still think this all sounds byzantine, why doesn’t anyone try to change it?

Actually, they do. Organisations such as the Royal Historical Society, the British Academy, HistoryUK, indeed History Lab Plus, as well as individual universities and academics, try to shape the rules to make them more helpful – both to historians, and humanities scholars more broadly. This does sometimes make them even more complex, as officials try to juggle different demands, but also means that the rules on (for example) the dispensations for ECRs, maternity, and the like have been more generous than in RAE2008.

That said, those seeking academic jobs tend to be at the sharp end of the REF. It is far easier for someone with a permanent job to defy its requirements than for those without that elusive permanent contract, though threatening noises are often heard, in many different types of institution, about the consequences of non-submission even for very senior members of staff. But colleagues further on in their career arcs can usually point to a track record of prior success. Rightly or wrongly, it is hard to launch a career without convincing a prospective employer that you will ‘deliver’ for the REF. Forewarned is forearmed!

Further Information

Further Information: The rules of the last REF are available in two documents, Assessment framework and guidance on submissions (REF 02.2011) and Panel criteria and working methods (REF 01.2012). The latest from HEFCE on Open Access can be found here [http://www.hefce.ac.uk/pubs/year/2013/201316/]. The rules of REF2020 may well change.

Reflections and Resolutions of an Independent Scholar

by Kimm Curran

‘Tis the season for reflecting on where our path has led us and which map to choose for the future. For many of us this allows us to think about where we want to be but also the choices we have made to get to where we are now. One decision that I made in 2013 was declare myself as an independent scholar as the distance between my PhD viva and 2013 no longer gave me much kudos as ‘early career’, especially when it came to funding bodies and post-doctoral positions. Independent scholar status seemed an identity shrouded in mystery and I was determined to unveil its secrets over the course of the year. Continue reading

Going GLAM: A Historian in a Digital Library

By James Baker

In March I went GLAM; or, to explain the acronym, I joined the galleries, libraries, archives, and museums sector, specifically the British Library, where I am now a Digital Curator—a historian among librarians in the Digital Research team.

The year has flown by. I’ve helped researchers get at our digital stuff, hosted hack days, trained librarians and postgraduates in digital research methods, given papers of various kinds, attended a Digital Humanities Summer School, helped publish clear information on open access, organised a series of panel discussions, hatched plans to release just over one million images (and counting) into the Public Domain, been awarded a year of free cloud storage and compute, written two collaborative grant applications, got on with some historical research using our digital stuff, and had innumerable conversations with interesting, creative and forward-thinking people about all things digital research. All told, it’s been a blast. Continue reading

Reading, Politics and Love: The Gift of the Book in Eighteenth-Century England

By Polly Bull

The History Lab Plus is pleased to present our first Focus on Early Career Research.If you are interested in sharing your research with the History Lab Plus community, please contact us.


First edition of Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan published in 1678.

In Little Women, Louisa May Alcott’s classic American novel about fortitude and love, Marmee gave her four daughters books as presents one Christmas. The books were copies of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. The March daughters had been complaining about their poverty and Marmee intended to teach a lesson of stoicism and charity through Bunyan’s work. She succeeded, and the girls gave away their breakfast to the poor on Christmas morning. This book-gift was meant to inspire, one of the functions of historical book-giving explored in this post. Continue reading