Defining research impact

Defining research impact
by Rebecca Sierig

What is research impact?

In the literature on research impact, one can find two slightly different answers to the question of what is meant by research impact. The first answer, as given for instance by the Research Excellence Framework (REF), defines impact as a change provoked by some research:

“In the REF, impact is defined as an effect on, change or benefit to the economy, society, culture, public policy or services, health, the environment or quality of life, beyond academia.” (REF 2014a)

Whereas the second answer contains an understanding of impact as an occasion of change provoked by some research:

“We define a research impact as a recorded or otherwise auditable occasion of influence from academic research on another actor or organization.” (LSE Public Policy Group 2011: 5)

One argument for defining research impact as an occasion for change rather than as the change itself, is the difficulty of reliably linking a certain change to only one source of influence:

“A research impact is an occasion of influence and hence it is not the same thing as a change in outputs or activities as a result of that influence, still less a change in social outcomes. Changes in organizational outputs and social outcomes are always attributable to multiple forces and influences. Consequently, verified causal links from one author or piece of work to output changes or to social outcomes cannot realistically be made or measured in the current state of knowledge.” (LSE Public Policy Group 2011: 5)

Having another look at the two definitions above leads to one more point according to which definitions of research impact may vary. While some definitions focus on (occasions of) change outside academia (definition 1), others include (occasions of) change research can provoke in academia and beyond (definition 2). The latter often distinguish explicitly between academic and external (e.g. economic or societal) impact such as in the following definition given by the Economic and Social Research Council (UK):

“Research Councils UK (RCUK) defines research impact as ‘the demonstrable contribution that excellent research makes to society and the economy’. This can involve academic impact, economic and societal impact or both:

  • Academic impact
      is the demonstrable contribution that excellent social and economic research makes in shifting understanding and advancing scientific, method, theory and application across and within disciplines
  • Economic and societal impact
      is the demonstrable contribution that excellent social and economic research makes to society and the economy, and its benefits to individuals, organisations and/or nations.” (ESRC 2017)

Academic impact

For your research to have an academic impact you do not need to formulate a new Theory of Relativity. When it is read or even cited by other researchers, it already has some primary impact (cf. LSE 2011: 14), in that it has become an initial occasion for advancing research, for changing opinions or existing methods. If more and more researchers read, cite and apply your findings, your impact leaves its primary stage and may, as time goes by, become something like a benchmark for people doing research in your field. A case in point is the research undertaken by Prof. Zoe Trodd, which – as a case study – has been analyzed in terms of impact by the REF 2014.

“In research undertaken and published as Professor of American Literature (July 1, 2012-present), Trodd has written the most up-to-date assessment available of contemporary slavery and antislavery efforts in Europe […] Since July 2012 she also has examined the literary and visual culture of the 21st-century global antislavery movement, a now 15-year-old movement to end the enslavement of 27 million people worldwide. For example, she has gathered and published narratives by formerly enslaved people (…) then offered the first and only scholarly theorisation of these narratives as a genre […]. In addition, she has provided the first and only examination of contemporary antislavery visual culture […].” (REF 2014b).

By publishing her research and presenting it, e.g. during conferences, Prof. Zoe Trodd paves the way for creating academic impact: she enables other researchers to become aware of her perspective, to apply her theory to further material, to build up new or enlarge existing research communities that focus on slave narratives. As Trodd creates the first scholarly theorisation of the genre of slave narratives, every serious researcher who plans to focus on a similar topic will have to consider her theorisation.

Societal impact

For a deeper understanding of societal impact we can stay with Prof. Trodd but focus on the changes in society that her research has provoked.

“Professor Zoe Trodd has contributed to changes in antislavery policy debate and practice at local, national and international levels—from lawyers’ societies and school teachers, to national non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and the European Parliament—through a series of publications, consultations, public talks, and contributions to teaching and digital resources about contemporary slavery and abolitionism. Drawing on her own research, as well as research into historic forms of slave resistance and literary abolitionism by two other professors in the UoA, she has intervened in contemporary abolitionism by advising the government bodies, NGOs and community organisations working to liberate slaves, pass antislavery legislation and remove slavery from industries’ supply chains.” (REF 2014b).

The amount of societal impacts that can be attributed to Trodd’s research is impressive: Not only has she influenced debates on slavery in the European Union, which have lead to a shift of focus from trafficking to slavery itself, she also has convinced several NGOs to apply her suggestions to their antislavery work and has initiated a British antislavery taskforce after having given a lecture on her research to a group of young public lawyers. Furthermore, she has reused primary material from her research for integrating it into an open access educational website which serves teachers to raise students’ awareness of slavery.

The LSE Public Policy Group (2011) criticizes the understanding of impact that underlies case studies like these as “implausible” (2011: 123) and “indefensible” (2011: 224). Arguing that “societal changes are always due to myriad causal influences” (2011: 123) they reject “an extended conception of impacts, encompassing not just occasions of influence, but also an expectation or demand for proven causal effects on outputs, outcomes or social welfare.” (2011: 224). If societal impact is defined as “a recordable occasion of influence with a non-university organization or actor” (LSE Public Policy Group 2011: 224) every situation in which a researcher gets the occasion to collaborate or communicate with people outside academia could raise that researcher’s societal impact.

“The most widely undertaken activities likely to generate external [i.e. societal] impacts involve informal advice to businesses, along with lectures, networking, contract work, student placements, joint publications with external personnel and consultancy.” (LSE Public Policy Group 2011: 160). Having this insight in mind and defining impact as an occasion of influence sheds a new light on the case study mentioned above. The societal impact does not (only) consist in the changes Trodd’s research might have provoked, but already in the activities she has undertaken to communicate her knowledge to organizations outside of the academia: “through a series of publications, consultations, public talks, and contributions to teaching and digital resources about contemporary slavery and abolitionism” (REF 2014).

The example of Trodd’s research impacts might have provided you with a better understanding of academic and societal impact. However, they also might have daunted you a little. If you are a young scholar, building for instance a small language corpus for your research, how could you create any impact for your research? Do you have to publish the results of your corpus analysis? Do you have to give a presentation on your insights during a conference? These would be fruitful activities for sure, but you could start creating your impact much earlier. Even if you have not yet discovered anything based on your corpus, this corpus alone can improve your impact, as research data can also create impact.

Video about research impact

In this  video Alexis Dewaele (Ghent University) explains the difference between academic and societal impact and provides interesting examples of both kinds of impact.

Impact of research data and tools

Thinking about the outcomes of academic research that could have an influence on academia itself and beyond, publications like journal articles or monographs are only one side of the coin.

Virtually every kind of research, even in the humanities, goes hand-in-hand with the creation of new data, even if your research community doesn’t necessarily call it by that name. In the humanities, one can think of personal curations and collections of primary and secondary works, of 3D scans of archaeological objects, digitized and meta-dated paintings or OCRed World War II journals. Especially in the humanities, data are often reused by adding new layers of interpretation.

In the past, a central location where these data could be stored, retrieved, and reused was far from evident. This meant that research data were often used only in the research context for which they were generated, greatly restricting the impact (influence) the collected data could have. Making data findable, accessible, interoperable, and reusable, results in raising the data’s impact, as it can now be used by future researchers to answer new research questions.

These days there are more and more locations in which to store, retrieve and reuse your data, often supported by domain-specific research infrastructures. These facilities aim to aggregate resources (data, people, tools, knowledge) to make us better connected and more informed. For instance, the research infrastructure CLARIN offers among other things the Virtual Language Observatory (cf. Zinn et al. 2012), a tool which allows the exploration of a large number of language resources, like corpora of written French through a uniform search mask. Making linguistic resources more easily retrievable and reusable, the VLO increases the potential impact of these resources. This is only one example out of many how research infrastructures contribute to the impact of data and therewith to the impact of the researchers who created these data.

Video about the impact of research data






In this video Arjan van Hessen (CLARIAH), Sally Chambers (DARIAH-BE) and Thorsten Ries (Ghent University) give some examples of how research infrastructures can raise the impact of data. You can watch the full interviews with Arjan van Hessen and Sally Chambers on the page Voices from the Community.




You can find the Wrap up and materials of the PARTHENOS Webinar “Create Impact with your e-Humanities and e-Heritage Research” in February 2018 (held by Juliane Stiller and Klaus Thoden) as part of the PARTHENOS eHumanities and eHeritage Webinar Series.