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Digital age facilitates research impact

Author  :  WANG YOURAN     Source  :    Chinese Social Sciences Today     2020-12-31

Research impact has been a subject of much scholarly discussion in recent years, and it is penetrating the public policy arena. Julie Bayley, director of Research Impact Development at the University of Lincoln in the UK, recently shed light on this topic.

According to Bayley, research impact is most simply defined as the provable benefits of research outside of academia. That is, impact is the term for “the changes we can see, demonstrate, measure, and capture, beyond academia, in society, the economy, or the environment, which happen because of our research or contributions.” This does not presume that research is the only influence, or the sole cause of change, but that research makes a clear and distinct contribution to something outside the halls of academia. There is no single type of impact, or single way in which impact occurs. There is also no prescription for the size of the effect. The defining characteristic of impact is that effects which arise from research are felt by non-academics.

It is very important to be clear that traditional measures of academic influence offer reflections on reputation and prestige within the scientific community, or influence other academics, while research impact reflects actual social change, Bayley continued. The emphasis on impact does not and should not undermine the principles of academic rigor or research excellence. Impact is also supported by associated changes in the research sector, such as the push for open access to publications, calls for “responsible metrics,” and critical discussions of university rankings.

It’s vital that today’s academics get “impact training” to understand why research impact is essential and how to maximize their impact. They need help to develop “impact literacy,” Bayley noted. Meanwhile, we must approach the idea that impact is essential with nuance. Although research should be used to help improve society and solve social problems, not all research should have a tangible impact. The link between research and impact is sometimes straightforward, and sometimes complex, so it is unrealistic to expect direct social effects from fundamental, basic, or exploratory research. It is unlikely that theoretical work in any discipline would convert directly into something to benefit society, as the nature of the work is likely far too conceptual to have a direct application. It would be unfair therefore to expect this type of research to demonstrate direct impact. However, this does not excuse those doing basic or exploratory research from keeping impact in mind, and ensuring their duty to drive the work forward to those who may be able to connect it to the real world, such as people conducting applied research in the same field of study.

“Having worked in impact for many years, and as a researcher myself, it has become abundantly clear to me that one of the best ways we can switch towards impact as a sector is to help people locate their work within impact: What does their work offer, or make possible, and how can this be driven forwards through further research, application, or non-academic partnerships,” Bayley said.

Bayley believes that the digital era makes it easier for researchers to create and demonstrate impact, as it reduces the distance between researchers and potential “users.” Digital technologies bring three key advantages—communication, capturing evidence, enabling skills development, and networking.

Social media offers new and creative ways to communicate research. Scholars are now able to have faster and more direct discussions with peers, build networks of practice, reach the broader public, and break down the wall between academia and society. However, it’s important to remember that attention via social media is not impact, Bayley warned. The digital era provides easier means to gather evidence, such as running surveys and carrying out policy analyses. Digital tools also add the potential to engage researchers not only in activities that improve their impact literacy and skills, but also connect with the impact community globally, including academics, research managers, non-academic specialists, funders, public servants and many others for whom “making a difference” is a primary goal.

Working with individuals or organizations outside of the academy is vital for impact, Bayley said. This kind of cooperation can help researchers identify possible impacts and the best ways to achieve them. For many academics, particularly those new to impact or working in disciplines set back from the world more interested in applications for research, engaging with non-academics seems to be a risky strategy which moves away from “pure science.” However, when done appropriately, by combining academic rigor with stakeholder insights, the path to impact will be more effective, enhancing rather than diluting the academic process.

Editor: Yu Hui

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