The ways in which the research impact is judged overlooks many of the people who are vital to the success of research.

You can learn more about the people behind the Hidden REF on our committee page.

Publications rarely name all of the people who made the research possible, yet they are the basis for almost all of the outputs submitted to the UK research assessments held in 2008, 2014 and 2021. What’s more, the reliance on publications has increased with each assessment: in the 2021 REF, 97.6% of outputs were journal or book publications. This means that out of around 186,000 outputs submitted to the 2021 REF, only around 4,500 were used to represent everything else that happens in research aside from publications (analysis).

This problem is not caused by the REF. The submission guidelines provide 21 different categories that represent a diverse range of outputs, from software to musical compositions. Instead, the focus on publications is caused by academic culture. With so much funding reliant on the results, universities are highly risk averse in what they will submit. Publications are established and well understood, but they do not reflect the work that is being conducted in academia. This reliance on the familiar combined with the practice of limiting the people named in publications to a few traditional roles, means that the vital work of many people goes unrecognised. The REF is invaluable to our understanding of research, but we believe that it would be a more successful assessment exercise if it included all research outputs and the people who make them possible.

The hidden REF competition began in 2020. We started with the categories of output used by the REF and we added suggestions from the research community for new categories that have previously been overlooked. Anyone who worked in a UK research institution (e.g. universities and research laboratories) could submit to the hidden REF. It received 120 submissions from more than 60 universities, with a third of the submissions made to the Hidden Role category. The submissions covered everything from 18 street children from Ghana, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Zimbabwe who had contributed their experiences of living on the streets, to a crowd-sourcing platform for increasing access to collections at the British Library, to an open-source project to make data science reproducible, ethical, collaborative and inclusive.

The hidden REF is challenging preconceptions about which roles are important in research – and this is no small task. Fortunately, there are many ways in which you can help. You can raise recognition of the hidden REF at your organisation and on social media and you can also volunteer to help.

It’s only by recognising everyone who is vital to the conduct of research that we will create an environment in which to advance it.