A new dawn for research evaluation?

12th January 2021

Academic culture and practices around research evaluation have taken a hit in recent years, with stakeholders across the ecosystem pushing for change. Now a new call has gone out through the launch of an ambitious initiative that recognises the unsung heroes of research. In this post, we discover more about the hidden REF and how it fits into the backdrop of a research environment in flux.

If the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us one thing, it’s that the world needs science. We’ve seen how the research community has rallied to share findings that have led to new treatments and vaccines, and stepped up to tackle the other health, social and economic consequences of the crisis.

While science is undoubtedly working hard for us, particularly in a crisis, it’s appears that the demand for high quality research and pressure to publish in quantity could be coming at a human cost, with underrepresented groups most affected.

Evidence of a research culture in trouble

In January 2020, a Wellcome report confirmed that the UK research culture was failing academics, with many feeling overworked, stressed and isolated. Academics reported that research culture had become increasingly competitive, leading to concerns over job security, along with pressure to produce quality outputs. These findings have called into question leadership styles and structures, and the incentives and evaluation systems that tend to focus on narrow measures of impact.

The results of Emerald’s Academic Culture Survey 2020 similarly showed that researchers want changes to incentives and a greater focus on quality of research outputs over quantity. They also raise the need for a broader set of research metrics to measure the quality of individual research contributions.

Conversations around these issues have been ongoing for some time, but with limited action. The Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA), for instance, calls on key stakeholders to commit to using a broader range of impact measures in research assessment and create new policies and practices around recruitment, promotion, and funding decisions. However, it’s already eight years old and progress remains slow. 

A clarion call for change

Now creators of a forward-thinking initiative are campaigning for a shift in research assessment. A group of researchers, led by Professor Simon Hettrick, who is also Deputy Director of the Software Sustainability Institute, have launched the hidden REF. This competition calls attention to the roles and outputs that are fundamental to research, but rarely acknowledged in assessment exercises such as the Research Excellence Framework (REF).

Emerald, along with other stakeholders, is supporting the initiative in line with its commitment to manifestos such as DORA, in addition to its own strategic plans to facilitate and recognise responsible research and publication practices.

To raise awareness of the hidden REF and make the competition a success, organisers are calling on the research community to get involved. They can send in their entries, volunteer or become a supporter. 

To enter the competition, submit a 300-word summary of the research contributor or output to one of the hidden REF categories. Submissions remain open until 26 February and winners will be announced on 19 April.