UK HEIs must embrace the REF’s invitation to improve research culture

The new rules are welcome, but change will only truly occur if institutions finally get over their obsession with publications, says the Hidden REF committee

August 2, 2023
Illustration of a large crowd of people to illustrate UK HEIs must embrace the REF’s efforts to improve research culture
Source: Getty images (edited)

The UK’s next Research Excellence Framework (REF) exercise promises changes that could make research more effective and the research environment more equitable. It is up to higher education institutions whether this rare opportunity to recognise the teams they rely on is seized or squandered.

People talk about “team research” as though it’s a goal for the future, and the recently published Future Research Assessment Programme (FRAP) report emphasises this point. But we have already been living in the era of team research for some time. The reality is that the vast majority of current research would not be possible without a group of people who provide a diverse range of vital skills – both those that are REFable and those that are hidden by the current evaluation regime.

Too often we fail to celebrate this fact because we cling to the outdated notion that the people named in publications are the only people who contributed to the research. For us, authorship is not the same as contribution, and the Hidden REF aims to recognise the variety of contributions necessary in a team approach to science.

Campus resource: To improve research culture, we must change the way we measure performance

Previous REFs are a perfect illustration of a research culture that values publications alone. In the last three, HEIs were encouraged to submit 21 different types of research outputs, yet in the 2021 exercise, journal publications and books accounted for 97.6 per cent of the outputs; only 2.4 per cent reflected everything else that happens in research, from coding to musical compositions.

And it’s not just the REF. Recognition in general – most notably during promotion deliberations – is based on the false belief that success in research can only be equivalent to being named in a publication.

Of course publications are vital, but they are far from the only important output, and they frequently owe their existence to other, overlooked research outputs. For instance, about 70 per cent of researchers from across disciplines report that software is fundamental to their work. But of the 186,000 outputs submitted to the last REF, only 31 were for data work and 11 for software.

Recruiting and retaining staff is already difficult in academia, where pay is lower than in the private sector and job security is a memory from previous generations. The least we can do – indeed, possibly the only thing we can do – is to recognise that there are many different ways to contribute to research and to celebrate these contributions equally.

Accordingly, we launched the Hidden REF in 2021 to raise awareness of “non-traditional” research outputs, which we defined as anything that is not a journal publication or a book. We ran a competition that raised awareness of this broad range, from community-building to training materials, and the importance of various established and emerging research roles.

The exercise uncovered incredible contributions to research. Moreover, contrary to popular opinion, it showed that judges were able to rank the relative impact of different types of outputs. The incredible response to the competition, which was run on a shoestring budget and almost entirely on volunteer effort, also proved that the research community is keen for a new approach to recognition.

We were delighted when one of the key aims of our campaign, that the contributions of all staff be recognised, was adopted for the 2028 REF. This is a crucial change. If we allow ourselves to dream, it could mark the beginning of a new research culture in which all staff are valued. This would address skills shortages by attracting people into what would now be a rewarding career. The UK could become a world leader in team research, making our country the destination for the best and brightest across all roles – including traditional researchers, who would be attracted by an unparalleled access to skills.

But before we can lose ourselves in the potential of this utopia, we must first convince universities to follow the new guidance. Their track record isn’t excellent. The fact that the non-traditional output categories have been consistently overlooked since they were introduced in 2008 is testament to the fear that any move away from a concentration on books or scholarly articles will result in a reduced outcome.

This risk is unfounded, however, and our latest campaign, the 5% Manifesto, is asking HEIs to ensure that at least 5 per cent of their submissions to the 2028 REF are in non-traditional categories. We are also asking individuals to sign up to show their support for a research environment that values more than publications.

There has been some criticism that 5 per cent is a low target, but it is double the current average, and we wanted something that HEIs could achieve. We are also aware that it’s easy to sign up to the latest idea, commitment or concordat, but far more difficult to implement the changes required. The 5% Manifesto has a clear goal, and the REF results provide a clear measure of whether that goal has been achieved.

We hope that HEIs will sign the manifesto and, more importantly, embrace the changes to the next REF. A more effective and equitable research environment is possible, but it’s down to the HEIs to realise it.

James Baker, Lyndsey Ballantyne, Neil Chue Hong, Gemma Derrick, Andy Dixon, Georgina Fletcher, Jude Fransmann, Simon Hettrick, Emma Karoune, Simon Kerridge, Kirsty Pringle and Tony Roche are members of the Hidden REF committee. The Festival of Hidden REF takes place 21 September in Bristol.

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Reader's comments (4)

In every team, there are normally only 1 or 2 people who are able to push knowledge forwards, with support of varying competence from a team in my experience. I'd like a clearer indication in this piece about how the hidden ref engages with the incredibly difficult and rare capacity to overcome knowledge boundaries, and how new knowledge is then disseminated- if not through peer reviewed writing.
And yet your publish your suggestions via an output. Interesting conundrum isn't it.....?
I don't agree with this approach. It would, in fact, lead to the weakening and demise of UK research globally if adopted. 'Research culture' will not factor in league tables. The rest of the world will forget about Britain and carry on, and UK universities will suffer as a result. As the authors hint at themselves, it is utopian nonsense. Their retort will no doubt be, 'well, it's already happening with REF2028'. I agree, and this is a mistake. Unless people are cedited for their substantial (not incidental) contributions (i.e., writing a book, for instance), there will be very little incentive to undertake serious research, and the 'culture' the authors of this piece are looking for will simply wither on the vine. There is a reason university research culture has been the way it has for over 1000 years. Think about it.
Including anonymous staff, surveys on the culture will tell you exactly what it is.