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This paper assesses the risk of two COVID-19 related changes necessary for the expert-review of the REF2021’s Impact criterion: the move from F2F to virtual deliberation; and the changing research landscape caused by the COVID-19 crisis requiring an extension of deadlines, and accommodation of COVID-19 related mitigation. Peer review in its basic form requires expert debate, where dissenting opinions and non-verbal cues are absorbed into a groups deliberative practice and therefore inform outcomes. With a move to deliberations in virtual settings, the most likely current outcome for REF2021 evaluations, the extent that negotiation dynamics necessary in F2F evaluations are diminished and how this limits panelists’ ability to sensitively assess COVID-19 mitigation statements is questioned. This article explores the nature of, and associated capabilities to undertake, complex decision making in virtual settings around the Impact criterion as well the consequences of COVID-19 on normal Impact trajectories. It examines the risks these changes present for evaluation of the Impact criterion and provides recommendations to offset these risks to enhance discussion and safeguard the legitimacy of evaluation outcomes. This paper is also relevant for evaluation processes of academic criteria that require both a shift to virtual, and/ or guidance of how to sensitively assess the effect of COVID-19 on narratives of individual, group or organisational performance.
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