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by James Baker
10th March 2021

The Hidden REF is a competition that recognises all research outputs and every role that makes research possible. It is a response to the Research Excellence Framework, or REF, the UK’s system for assessing the quality and impact of research in UK higher educational institutions.

Much of the discourse around the REF focuses on research outputs, typically publications such as journal articles, monographs and conference proceedings, but also artefacts, compositions and software (see here for the full list), produced by academics during the course of their research. Our work on the Hidden REF stems from the fact that publications rarely name all of the people who make research happen, and yet publications were the basis for 97 per cent of the output submitted to REF 2014: the most recent national exercise for research evaluation in British higher education institutions. This means that many people – from librarians to technicians, research managers to research software engineers – are invisible to the REF, their labour hidden from view. As we enter the closing stages of the REF 2021 cycle, the Hidden REF seeks to celebrate all research outputs and roles. We want to focus attention on the way in which impact is judged, and how this tends to overlook many of the people who are vital to the success of research.

Submissions to the Hidden REF close on 14 May, and so the Hidden REF team are currently out there generating interest and attention, because we know a good response will help us better understand the people and things the REF fails to shine a light on. These are also opportunities to test our assumptions with different communities. In a recent talk about the Hidden REF at a major research library, an audience member asked if our ‘Citizen Science’ category ‘would also include collaboration with indigenous / traditional / local knowledge “holders”’. My instinctive answer was yes, to encourage them to think of the ‘Citizen Science’ category as capaciously as they wanted. But my answer was also tinged by an acute awareness that we’d missed something in constructing our categories, that something about us as a Hidden REF team had created this blindspot – a framing of ‘Citizen Science’ as Zooniverse – and that other blindspots may emerge as Hidden REF filtered further into the research community.

The episode reminded me of Catherine D’Ignazio and Lauren F. Klein’s Data Feminism (2020) and the remarks on the accountability of authors and producers that begin their ‘About Us’ section:

Feminist standpoint theory recognizes the value of situated knowledge – acknowledging the perspectives and experiences of the knower and how those have shaped the knowledge they produce. Accordingly, we situate ourselves and the learning contexts in which we work. (p. 217)

This article is therefore about the Hidden REF team situating ourselves, about not shying away from the fact that we have a standpoint, and about opening up space to widen our view, especially as we move towards constructing assessment panels to judge responses to the Hidden REF. The hope is that this reflexivity can help us to help potential entrants contextualise how we’ve framed the competition and categories such that entrants think of them as capaciously as we hoped they would, even if our descriptions of the competition and the categories narrow towards our perspectives, experiences and knowledges.

So, who are we? We are a committee of nine individuals, some of whom created the Hidden REF, some of whom were proactively drawn to the Hidden REF, some of whom were asked to participate in the Hidden REF, all but one of whom had connections with another committee member before working on the Hidden REF. Most of us work in a higher education institution, roughly half of us are academics, and none of us – if all our roles enabled us to be submitted to the REF – would be submitted to Panel A (Medicine, Health and Life Sciences). All of us are from the Global North, all but one of us use English as a first language, roughly half of us identify as male, and the vast majority of us are white. We were born between the mid-1960s and the late-1980s. More than half of us were the first in their close family to go to university and the same ratio went on to complete a doctorate. None of us has parents who are academics. None of us identify as having a disability, and most of us have no caring responsibilities (unless you count dogs!). We all wear glasses.

What does this mean? It means that as a group we occupy positions of privilege and benefit from network effects. It means that we represent the generation and social groups who benefited from the rapid expansion in higher education since the 1980s. It means we experience some – but not most – intersections of structural inequality, that we experience those inequalities differently, and that we can draw on the resources of those who experience few, those with time and energy to give to voluntary labour.

What does this mean for the Hidden REF? It means, as we’ve seen, that we have blindspots. But it also means we can start to identify where some of those blindspots are: the encounters of scholars from the Global South with the REF, how disability intersects with the roles that make research possible, what late-career scholars make of the labour that is hidden today compared with their past experiences of academic research culture. In turn this gives us a basis for action. It means we can and should construct Hidden REF assessment panels that work against, challenge and resist our standpoint. It means we can and should use our communications to frame Hidden REF as emerging from this standpoint. And as we begin to look beyond the Hidden REF competition to analysing what work, roles and labour the REF fails to fully recognise, by being clear on who we are – and aren’t – we have a basis for knowing what we are less likely to find, and how our collective standpoint needs to shift to address that.

The HiddenREF is a competition that recognises all research outputs and every role that makes research possible. The competition is open for submissions until 14 May 2021. Winners will be announced in June. For more information, visit https://hidden-ref.org/

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