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Here’s why the Hidden REF is still needed

Image: Tetra Images, via Getty Images

While universities resist broader submissions, grassroots campaign will continue, say Gemma Derrick and Simon Hettrick

The 2029 Research Excellence Framework must be the first in which a group of researchers actively want to be assessed. The new rules promise to open up the exercise to under-recognised members of the research workforce, such as technicians, who are crying out to be included in their institutions’ REF submissions.

This contrasts with a widespread culture of resistance against inclusion. Arguments for abolishing the REF centre on how it distorts research—backed by studies suggesting that national research evaluations limit academics’ choices and freedom—and loads unnecessary workload and emotional burden on university administrators.

Universities, however, have responded coolly to this outbreak of REF enthusiasm. Non-traditional outputs and roles are still not deemed sufficiently competitive to risk submitting in place of the more traditional outputs of books and journal articles.

Universities’ conservatism is understandable. Faced with financial pressures around income from domestic student fees and debate surrounding international students, they are retreating into old notions of competitiveness. 

Developing new approaches to evaluation and the kind of research culture that the next REF seeks to promote is seen as a luxury. But immediate challenges should not diminish the larger responsibility to improve research outcomes by recognising and appreciating all parts of the research community.

Celebrating all outputs

The Hidden REF is a competition that started in 2021 as a way to celebrate those aspects of research that could be included in submissions but seldom were, as well as to trial more effective ways to evaluate them. It was never about changing the mainstream REF; it was about surfacing unrepresented aspects of research culture and showing how evaluation choices by universities dictated what was visible and invisible.  

For us, a better, more inclusive research community was only possible if the research being conducted and the way that it was disseminated was fully acknowledged, valued and put forward for evaluation.

When the initial decisions on the next REF were published in July 2023, we hoped our job was done. The full range of permissible outputs, from data to musical compositions, was promoted, and the rules changed to allow different types of contributors. 

Above all, the renamed people, culture and environment criterion and its increased weighting, up to 25 per cent of the total from the 15 per cent allocated to research environment in 2021, seemed the ideal vehicle for universities to adopt the Hidden REF’s messages.

The 5% Manifesto 

We knew, however, that institutions would not reshape their REF submissions simply out of the goodness of their hearts. They also needed a carrot. So last autumn we launched our 5% Manifesto, calling on universities to pledge to give at least this proportion of their REF submissions over to non-traditional research outputs. 

As well as formalising this commitment, the manifesto aims to build momentum behind such a change. The Hidden REF Festival, held in Bristol in September, revealed a strong appetite for this.

This is what an overlooked and discontented research community wants from an assessment exercise that evaluates them under the guise of ‘research quality’. Universities’ response to the advocacy of Hidden REF committee members, however, has been less enthusiastic. These discussions have shown us that the Hidden REF competition is needed now more than ever.

The 5% Manifesto is not a tax on submissions or a restriction of institutional autonomy. It’s an incentive to create a broader vision of the REF’s possibilities, and perhaps something to include in a people, culture and environment submission.  

Our intention is to give voice to people and outputs deemed ‘uncompetitive’ by universities whose view is restricted by notions of excellence that still owe too much to the culture of past REFs.

Culture change within inherently conservative institutions, even when it would be to their benefit, takes time and gentle nudging. Our job as a grassroots movement is not done. 

The 2024 competition is now open, with added categories such as team science, citizen science and campaigns. We will remain a grassroots organisation, representing those whose contributions get overlooked by their universities. 

We are committed to building universities’ confidence that non-traditional outputs and research roles are competitive. If universities do more to support the people and contributions that are vital to research, they will become more successful at research. 

Gemma Derrick is an associate professor in research policy and culture at the University of Bristol. Simon Hettrick is a professor of research software engineering at the University of Southampton. They are both committee members for the Hidden REF.

This article also appeared in Research Fortnight