UK Doubles Its "World-Leading" Research in Life Sciences and Medicine in Six Years: Testing the Claim?

Steven Wooding, Thed N. Van Leeuwen, Sarah Parks, Shitij Kapur, Jonathan Grant

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

9 Citations (Scopus)
182 Downloads (Pure)


Background The UK, like some other countries, carries out a periodic review of research quality in universities and the most recent Research Excellence Framework (REF) reported a doubling (103% increase) in its "world leading" or so-called "4∗" research outputs in the areas of life sciences and medicine between 2008 and 2014. This is a remarkable improvement in six years and if validated internationally could have profound implications for health sciences. Methods We compared the reported changes in 4∗ quality to bibliometric measures of quality for the 56,639 articles submitted to the RAE 2008 and the 50,044 articles submitted to the REF 2014 to Panel A, which assesses the life sciences, including medicine. Findings UK research submitted to the RAE and REF was of better quality than worldwide research on average. While we found evidence for some increase in the quality of top UK research articles, a 10-25% increase in the top 10%ile papers, depending upon the metrics used, we could not find evidence to support a 103% increase in quality. Instead we found that as compared to the RAE, the REF results implied a lower citation %ile threshold for declaring a 4∗. Interpretation There is a wide discrepancy between bibliometric indices and peer-review panel judgements between the RAE 2008 and REF 2014. It is possible that the changes in the funding regime between 2008 and 2014 that significantly increased the financial premium for 4∗ articles may have influenced research quality evaluation. For the advancement of science and health, evaluation of research quality requires consistency and validity - the discrepancy noted here calls for a closer examination of mass peer-review methods like the REF.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere0132990
JournalPL o S One
Issue number7
Publication statusPublished - 23 Jul 2015


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