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Moves to measure the ‘impact’ of research on society

Changing the ways in which academics communicate with one another and the world outside the university is a slow process.

Despite the transformational effects of digital communication technologies across the world, traditional ‘closed’ academic outputs such as articles in subscription journals or hard-to-access book chapters are still those that are most commonly produced.

However, UK academics are now encouraged to meld their research with the needs of the outside world through the introduction of a measurement of the effects, or ‘impact’, of academic research on wider society in the upcoming Research Excellence Framework (REF) assessment exercise.

This could provide them with a considerable incentive to make their research more accessible in terms of both language and publication methods. There is also a significant advantage for cash-strapped universities as the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) will be allocating 20% of REF funding to this question of illustrating external impact.

Impact of Social Sciences project

The Impact of Social Sciences project, based at the London School of Economics, in 2009 began to investigate the impact of academic work on government, business and civil society.

Our initial impression was that many academics, particularly those in the social sciences, were missing a key stepping stone to creating an external impact, as much of their work was relatively closed off to those practitioners outside universities.

Those in the STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – disciplines tended to publish their work in more accessible paths online – through open access journals or personal blogs; yet those in the social sciences were lagging behind.

We found that social scientists did not use online depositories where full text articles could be accessed without subscription as regularly as their STEM peers, nor did they tend to update online profiles. When interviewed about this, many felt that a lack of knowledge about copyright restrictions placed on them by publishers was to blame.

Our research has found a correlation between being cited within academia and being referenced outside of it. So it appears that excellent academic work is also the work that is likely to create external impacts.

Few external research user groups that we found had ready access to subscription journals. By supporting institutional online depositories, universities are ensuring that those searching for expertise in a particular area are more likely to find research that is useful, relevant and timely – all of which could mark the beginning of an impactful relationship.

Social media dissemination

There are also some practical reasons why universities should make use of social media tools to open up and promote their research.

There is growing recognition that academic blogging – providing short and accessible discussions of key ideas and research – can be a powerful tool in engaging with policy-makers and practitioners in a non-technical language.

The academic blogosphere has grown and matured over the course of our research and we are beginning to find practical evidence of how effective blogging can be in making research more accessible to a curious and interested audience.

Academic voices can also be broadcast loudly through social media tools, and networking among practitioners is increasingly happening online.

A team from the World Bank highlighted the role that subject-specific blogs had in alerting those with an interest in a particular policy area to recent academic work.

McKenzie and Özler showed a huge increase in the number of abstract views and downloads an academic paper received following a mention on a high-profile blog such as Freakonomics or Marginal Revolution.

Academics and universities are also reaching out to their online audience through both Facebook and Twitter in efforts to disseminate new research reports or blog posts. These tools can also act as an online channel for discussion running alongside traditional academic conferences and this allows for a much wider participation from across the globe.

Finally, a more ‘open’ approach to research can have a direct effect on how academics prioritise and conduct their work.

There was a disconnect in terms of the work that academics felt previous assessment exercises or prevailing wisdom pushed them towards: single-author, middle-of-the-discipline articles destined preferably for highly ranked journals. However, we find that multi-authored, cross-disciplinary works are those that are of greatest interest to policy-makers and create the most external impacts.

To produce work of this nature requires academics to reach outside their institutions, disciplines and even geographical spaces in efforts to create interesting work that is of relevance to a much wider field than the cosy ivory tower.

Social media can play a role in creating networks and connecting scholars around particular research themes and campaigns, and has the potential to link academics directly with activists, government officials, funders and the national media.

Support and incentives needed

Of course, there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ guide to improving the use of academic research among practitioners and while web-savvy academics can make the most of online depositories and social media tools, there is a caveat to their use.

The internet allows for instant access to research, but also enables instant critique. Academics are used to reading responses to their work in a journal with particular editorial standards two, or perhaps three, years later.

Yet responses on social media are immediate and often forthright. These can be difficult to deal with and universities will need to support their staff in handling these issues. In addition, those who blog about their research before results or findings are finalised may find that original supporters are disappointed if final judgments go a different way.

The challenge here is to persuade both academics and those within higher education management that there is a distinct value in being more open with methods of production and dissemination of research.

While these cannot be said to be perfect, it’s clear that supporting open access publication models and making use of social media are part of how the higher education sector will interact most effectively with those around it.

This, of course, has ramifications for the advice provided by institutions to their academic staff and, particularly, in the way these activities are incentivised through inclusion in promotion and performance processes.

In addition, digital publication and dissemination strategies require new resources and will need to be factored into calculations of academic workload and time burdens. It will fall to universities to fund these new methods of dissemination despite experiencing a period of financial upheaval.

Encouraging an ‘open’ philosophy in research and dissemination of academic work can only lead to more encounters with policy-makers, more conversations with civil society groups, and more productive partnerships with business. And, in the UK at least, that comes with financial benefits that universities would be foolish to ignore.

* Jane Tinkler is a research fellow and public policy group manager at the London School of Economics and Political Science.
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