REF 2021 – The Impact Manager’s Action Plan

At long last, and with much ado, the revised REF 2021 submission date has been announced (31 March 2021). It’s not an unexpected decision: this is the latest it could be pushed, while still getting the assessment finished in time to determine the 2022 quality-related (QR) funding allocation. And, of course it’s QR funding that is the core purpose of the REF – all the business with league tables and rankings is either a collateral benefit or collateral damage, depending on your point of view.

When it comes to impact, of course, we’re talking about three- and four-star case studies. That’s what attracts the QR money – and with a four-star case study worth hundreds of thousands of pounds, it’s worth putting in the effort to make sure your case study portfolio is as strong as it can possibly be.

So, what should you do, as an impact manager, with less than nine months to go? The amount of work you need to do is daunting, no doubt about it. But I’ve been through this before, as the impact manager responsible for my institution’s impact submission in REF 2014, and I have a pretty good idea of how to get through this successfully.

Let’s begin!


You’re not likely to get much out of academics over summer, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be productive. This is a good time for assessing the portfolio of draft case studies.

What are their strengths and weaknesses?

What action can be taken to improve them?

Is the evidence strong enough, and if not, can it be strengthened?

Finally, what star rating is it likely to receive?

This last point will be particularly important if, as is likely, there will be meetings in autumn to finalise the selection of case studies.

Hopefully you already have some external assessments of your case studies to help with this. If not, this is an ideal time to commission some, if at all possible. In any case, whether you do it all yourself or get help from an outside agency, look out for any actions to improve the impact that can reasonably be carried out by 31st December. If there are, then send a proposed action plan to the academic in question, making it clear what you will do to support them in getting this done.

Autumn Term

Your institution will most likely have meetings this term to finalise the impact submission, by which they mean making final decisions on the case studies to be included. This is great insofar is it enables you to absolutely focus on those case studies, but of course you know fine well that they are by no means finalised. This is your responsibility.

Work through every case study on the submission list. If the list hasn’t been finalised yet, then work from the current shortlist – but you’ll have a good idea of which case studies will make it, so you’ll be able to prioritise accordingly.

Start by looking at the impact, as this where you’re most likely to find problems that can’t be sorted at the last minute. First, check that every claim of impact in section 4 of the case study is linked to a piece of evidence in section 5, and vice versa. Next, check that you have a copy of each piece of evidence in section 5. Finally, and this is really important, check that each piece of evidence actually supports the impact claim being made. Honestly, I’ve seen some shockers in my time.

Then it’s on to the tedious details. Are all the citations correct in section 3? Do they all have DOIs? (If not, google the publication title and you should find the DOI easily enough). Are all of the outputs in section 3 linked to references in section 2? Are all of the statements about the underpinning research in section 2 linked by references to outputs in section 3? By now these case studies will mostly have been through the mill so often that everyone’s eyes just scan past all these details: all the more reason to have a proper sit down and make sure everything is in order.

You should also check the Additional Contextual Data fields at the end of the case study. This stuff won’t be used in the assessment, but it’s still up to you to make sure it’s filled in properly. You may well find it easier to get hold of grant details from your institution’s grant support team than from the researchers themselves. Do be nice to them: they’re very busy. ORCID identifiers can be looked up directly at the ORCID website – just make sure you have the right Prof Joan Smith.

Once you have identified the gaps in each case study that you can’t fill yourself, give the lead academic an action plan detailing the information you require and, where necessary, how to get it. If a testimonial is needed, provide bullet points detailing the key information that it should contain. The deadline for completing this should be no later than the end of the year. (In practice, this means you’ll get it in January. Hopefully.)

Christmas Break

Have some time off. At least the week between Christmas and New Year. See family and friends, drink mulled wine, read some books, binge some telly, but whatever you do, don’t work on any case studies. You need some rest and recuperation. The next three months are going to be brutal.


Had a nice break? Good. Now get cracking. Towards the end of last year, you asked a load of academics for information, clarification, and documentation. If you’re lucky, as many as half of them have got back to you by now with what you need. Split your time between revising their case studies as required, and badgering their recalcitrant colleagues until they come up with the goods. Be persistent. Be annoying. Be like Goldfinger with his laser cutter pointed straight at James Bond’s nether regions. The time for excuses is past.

As your information comes in, revise each case study. In a few cases, the academic will have been able to achieve some last-minute impact by the 31st December cut-off. Let out a brief “Hurrah!” and incorporate it into the case study.


This is the time for finalising case studies. The first and most important task is to go through each case study checking the evidence. First, check that any missing evidence you identified in autumn has now been supplied, and that any new impact has evidence to support it. Next, check that you have a copy of each piece of evidence, in a suitable form for submission.

The second task is to check the Additional Contextual Data for each case study. Again, ensure that any gaps you identified in autumn have been filled. Then check that the information is valid.

Lastly, do a final edit on the case study document itself. Make sure the structure is solid, the prose is clear, and all the necessary information is included. Don’t forget to check formatting details.

Once you have a case study in its final form – or at least, what you believe to be its final form – see if you can get a colleague to read it over for you. They may well spot daft errors that you are simply blind to, having worked on the document for so long.


All of the work on revising case studies and gathering evidence should be done by now. If there is anything outstanding from any academics, or any other colleagues, then it’s gloves-off time. The Pro Vice Chancellor will doubtless be fascinated to know who is endangering your institution’s REF submission at this stage.

Get your submission organised, by which I mean a separate folder into which you put the final submission pdf version of each case study and nothing else. There is going to be plenty of rush and anxiety around the submission process: safeguard against errors by getting everything calmly organised in advance. (It’s also worth doing the same for the supporting evidence you are going to upload, although this will have a later, and hopefully less fraught, deadline.)

The submission deadline is the 31st, but set yourself a deadline of a week earlier than this for getting the entire impact submission finalised. Treat this as a hard deadline. Have every case study in its final form and ready for submission by Wednesday 24th March.

Sometime in this last week you’re going to upload all your case studies to the REF submission website. Exactly when and how this is done will depend on how your institution wants to go about things, but for the love of all that is holy do not do this on the 31st of March. Even the 30th is pushing it. Things go wrong, last minute errors are discovered, websites go down. Get everything uploaded by the 29th if you possibly can. Then make your Pro Vice Chancellor take everyone for drinks.


If you’ve been working as hard as you need to, you no doubt have some annual leave stored up. Take it now. You deserve a break. And when you come back, you can get to work on supporting impact without the REF deadline to concentrate everyone’s minds – but that’s a whole other article.

For more information or support for your university from REF Manager Iain Coleman, write to

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