Case Study

Open University

Interview conducted 15 April, 2021  Compare case studies

In 2015 the UK’s Open University (OU) published “An Open Research University” a book outlining the outputs from a three-year project to create and implement an evidence-based strategy to embed the principles and practices of engagement with new processes for research assessment within the university. In keeping with the OU’s existing commitment to open research and knowledge exchange, the project aimed to steer their research culture toward recognizing and rewarding a broader range of contributions, specifically in “engaged research”. There were multiple examples of top-down/bottom-up cooperation to inform and promote the policies outlined in the report, such as the sponsorship of a working group to reform the university’s academic promotion criteria by the then Pro-Vice-Chancellor responsible for academic professional development. In 2020, the OU signed DORA and released a statement describing the university’s aim of creating a DORA Implementation Plan by 2021. These actions represent a continuation and codification of a growing institutional movement toward research assessment reform.

Who: Organization profile

Country United Kingdom
Profile of institution comprehensive university or equivalent
Number of FTE researchers > 1000
Further information An Open Research University
Organization of research evaluation faculty/department levelsInstitutional/university level
Who is involved? academic leadershipacademic researcherslibrary staffpeople servicesresearch department staff

What: What changed and the key elements of change

From 2012 to 2015, the Research Councils United Kingdom (RCUK) funded the OU as one of eight Public Engagement with Research (PER) Catalysts. The RCUK was replaced by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) in 2018. The goal of this PER Catalyst Programme was to establish support for public engagement within select research institutions. In 2015, the OU published its project results in “An Open Research University”.1

As one of eight universities in the PER Catalyst Programme, the OU's overall goal was to shift research culture toward recognizing and rewarding a broader range of research contributions, namely “engaged research.” While the overall project aim aligned with the OU’s commitment to open research and knowledge exchange, there was consensus among faculty that the university needed formalized systems to reward research projects that actively involved a broader range of stakeholders. To this end, the OU implemented an evidence-based approach to research assessment reform, including:

  • The publication of an Impact Framework to integrate engaged research into the academic culture and policies of the OU.
  • The iterative development of the “Engaging Research Award Scheme” to recognize and reward publicly-engaged research. This scheme was developed and refined under the leadership of a senior researcher with expertise in conducting and assessing engaged research.
  • With sponsorship from the Pro-Vice-Chancellor responsible for academic professional development, a diverse working group was created to reform the OU’s academic promotion criteria. The working group developed a new promotion scheme through iterative, university-wide feedback.

A critical change to the promotion scheme was the reformatting of academic promotion routes. Academic promotion routes at the OU require faculty staff to submit their portfolios under different academic “profiles” that best fit the expertise of the candidate (e.g., teaching, research, or teaching and research profile). This system enables flexible assessment based on the profile. The candidate selects the best fit for their specific academic path, achievements, and outputs. The working group added a new, fourth profile for “Knowledge Exchange” as an academic promotion route in 2015.

The Knowledge Exchange profile enabled the promotion of researchers whose “impactful” work (generated and evidenced, e.g., through public engagement, patient involvement, community engagement, involvement with economic or public development projects, public policy) was high-quality, clearly evidenced, and sustained over an extended period. In a practical sense, the addition of the Knowledge Exchange profile rewards a broader range of “outputs”, allowing researchers to be recognized and rewarded for a wider set of contributions. Since its introduction in 2015, six OU professors have been promoted through the Knowledge Exchange profile. Toward facilitating understanding and open communication on the new profile, the OU’s Knowledge Exchange promotion criteria were celebrated and the changes to the promotion criteria were explained during an inaugural professorial lecture given as part of the OU’s 50th Anniversary Celebrations in 2019.

Why: Motivation for change

External influence for change came from a succession of national policies. In 2009, the United Kingdom began to introduce an Impact Agenda, initially within applications for funding, and then as an element of research audits. The impact agenda aimed to increase social and economic impact from research conducted at higher education institutions within the United Kingdom. The introduction of the United Kingdom’s Research Excellence Framework (REF) in 2014, in which funding is linked to the rigorous assessment of the impacts from university research (alongside outputs and research environment), was an additional external influence.

In an example of a direct external influence that enabled change, the RCUK provided the OU with funding to take part in the PER Catalysts Programme. This support gave the OU the capacity to research and implement new policies around recognition and rewards in academic assessment.

Although the aforementioned actions of national funding agencies played a role in encouraging change, internal drivers also played a critical role for change within the university. The OU has an embedded commitment to openness, engagement, and knowledge exchange (examples of which are their institutional repositories Open Research Online, ORDO, and OpenLearn). Through internal conversations with academic Associate Deans of Research and faculty, it was recognized that there was room for reform of assessment practices to galvanize this commitment.

While progress has been made, it was noted that shifting academic culture and refining new practices is an ongoing process with unique challenges. For example, to address the specific challenges of resistance to research assessment reform from researchers, it was noted that ongoing communication, engagement, and shared learning are key. The OU holds workshops, meetings, and generates blog posts to support staff with engaged research, new practices, and approaches to assessment reform. Along these lines, the OU also found that clearly outlining examples of the new Knowledge Exchange promotion profile helped both applicants and reviewers understand the profile better.

How: Processes and dynamics for developing, implementing and managing change

Over the course of the OU’s PER Catalyst, there was a top-down/bottom-up dynamic in which senior leadership (e.g., Associate Deans, Pro Vice-Chancellors) and researchers provided feedback, supported, and helped implement the work of the PER Catalyst research team (which included academics and professional services working in support of impact-generating activities) who debated, studied, and iteratively refined new assessment practices. An additional, critical dynamic for developing new practices was the focus that the OU placed on using research to develop new policies for assessing engaged research. Other stakeholders who helped facilitate change included the OU People Services and the OU branch of the University College Union (UCU).

At the start of the OU’s PER Catalyst in 2012, a team of senior researchers was convened to answer two key questions: whether change for academic assessment was necessary, and if so, what needed to change and in what order? To inform their initial research, the team confidentially surveyed University Associate Deans of Research and University management using the National Co-ordinating Center for Public Engagement EDGE tool. The EDGE tool allowed the team to compare where the OU stood on Public Engagement in 2012 against where they would like to stand at the end of the project in 2015. After the initial survey, the team conducted confidential personal interviews with the University Associate Deans of Research and University management. Staff were also surveyed.

The EDGE tool, the personal interviews, and the staff survey proved to be critical resources. “This process highlighted the need for the institution to change, and provided a framework to organize how this could be achieved. As such, each of the nine elements in the EDGE Tool relates to an objective and a project work package”.1 The results of this study were published in 2015.2

It was noted that these confidential discussions helped establish trust with the Associate Deans of Research, fostering discussion about assessment practices and the specific needs of OU researchers. In this way, the team was able to incorporate both top-down and bottom-up feedback into their initial strategic planning.

In another example of bottom-up/top-down cooperation, the academic assessment working group continues to perform a biannual institutional survey to explore different aspects of academic criteria and assessment practices. Collecting feedback in this manner enables refinement of the promotion criteria over time.

When: Timeline for development and implementation

The RCUK funded the OU to take part in the PER Catalysts Programme (2012-2015), and the OU released the findings of its three-year PER Catalyst project “An Open Research University” in 2015. In 2019, the university released updated documentation on its ongoing efforts toward change.

The OU signed DORA in 2020 and released a Statement on the Responsible Use of Research Metrics stating that: “The OU will develop an Implementation Plan by November 2021 to ensure DORA principles are effectively implemented, supported, communicated and progress on their implementation transparently monitored.”


  1. Holliman, R., Adams, A., Blackman, T., Collins, T., Davies, G., Dibb, S., Grand, A., Holti, R., McKerlie, F., Mahony, N. and Wissenburg, A. (2015). An Open Research University. Milton Keynes: The Open University. Retrieved 22 July 2021 from:
  2. Grand, A., Davies, G., Holliman, R. and Adams, A. (2015). Mapping Public Engagement with Research in a UK University. PLoS ONE, 10(4) pp. 1–19. Retrieved 22 July 2021 from: