Dr Neil Fleming, Principal Lecturer at the University of Worcester, has provided the following post on our last annual research event on impact, which was held at the IHR in September 2019.
What is research impact? The rapidly changing environment in UK higher education means that it is a question few of us can ignore. ‘Research impact’ has been around since the long lead up to REF2014. Yet, it is evident that many researchers, established and new, remain uncertain about what it means in practice. At the same time, there is increasing importance attached to research impact in academic appointments, job appraisals, and university rankings and league tables.
To shed some light on the matter, History UK organised a workshop at the Institute of Historical Research, held on 4 September 2019. Expert scholars, reflecting all career stages, including several former REF panellists, were invited to reflect on research impact:
- Dr Chiara Beccalossi (Lincoln)
- Professor Dinah Birch CBE (Liverpool)
- Professor Nick Crowson (Birmingham)
- Professor Anne Curry (Southampton)
- Dr J.D. Hill (British Museum)
- Dr Charlotte Wildman (Manchester).
Their various and wide-ranging contributions and responses to questions are summarised below.
What is Research Impact?
At its broadest, research impact is about the public benefit created by historians. More precisely, it is when research does something for someone else. It must be a distinctive and material contribution, though it can be indirect and non-linear as long as there is a connection. It needs to make a difference and to support this with appropriate evidence. Indeed, REF panellists prefer the idea of ‘making a difference’ to the simplistic idea of measuring ‘impact’.
The best source of advice is the REF2021 website’s criteria for Impact Cast Studies, along with the high-scoring case studies submitted to REF2014.
For understandable reasons, it is incorrectly assumed by some that research impact can be demonstrated through giving public talks and media presentations. First, it is the impact of research that matters and not necessarily the presence of an academic in some activity. Second, such activities on their own do not amount to research impact. They can, however, become ‘routes to establishing research impact’ if it is possible to calculate and supply evidence of the difference made.
To measure research impact it is important to capture evidence. This needs to happen at the outset, so that data can be compared before and after.
The need for evidence can cause problems. Providing evidence for research impact on government policy is very hard to demonstrate. The same applies to the general public. This explains why viable and successful impact case studies tend to involve working with organisations.
Working with organisations still presents potential difficulties. There is the need to make participants aware that researchers will be collecting data on research impact. This may require building up a relationship over time. Hesitancy or even opposition are possible reactions, especially if there is already wariness about academic researchers getting involved in the work of non-academic groups.
The need to initiate and develop relationships with external groups and organisations means that preparing impact case studies for the REF that follows REF2021 should begin now.
The introduction of research impact in REF2014 meant that some leeway was then given to impact case studies. The expectation in REF2021 is that examples of best practice now exist on the REF2014 website, and so Unit of Assessment (UoA) panels will be tougher when it comes to the standards of measuring and assessing research impact in REF2021.
There is the additional factor of public policy. Scholars in the Arts and Humanities are under ever increasing pressure to demonstrate the public worth of their research. REF2014 provided an opportunity to do so, and so can REF2021.
Tips for Finding Case Studies
- Local branch of Heritage Lottery Fund useful for information on available community projects
- Utilising ‘citizenship’ teaching can help to engage local primary schools
- Working with youth groups more straightforward as school curriculum and teachers too busy
- Write a teacher guide to teaching an understudied subject
- Stimulate the public to do their own research, especially groups that would not be otherwise reached
- More permissive scope in REF201 for research impact in HE. However, avoid focusing on only one institution as this would not demonstrate the reach and significance necessary to obtain high scores
Impact Cast Studies: Things to Avoid
- Impact case studies should be interesting: avoid repetition, provide a strong narrative, and do not let an administrator write it!
- Concentrate less on the pathway and more on the impact made, e.g., is reaching 2,000 children a lot, given normal and typical activities?
- Avoid relying on the production of websites with lots of information: focus on the impact of the research
- UoA panel members only have time to look at what is in front of them so avoid relying on inserted weblinks
Impact Case Studies: Top Tips
- Would the group you claim has benefitted be able to understand what you have written?
- Send case studies for informal feedback to appropriate ‘users’, i.e., colleagues in the community, cultural, museum sectors, etc.
- All references in case studies do not need to be to 2* publications – as long as the research itself is at least 2* quality
- UoA panel does not assess quality of the research after it meets the 2* threshold, it assesses the quality of the research impact
- Research funding does not matter as long as the research that underlies the case study meets the 2* threshold
- UoA panel tends not to read outputs associated with case studies unless there is a particular reason to do so
- Avoid testimonials based on purely personal relationships; these should supply substantial and tangible evidence of impact on them/their organisation
- Those giving testimonials may require guidance on what is supportive
- Testimonials demonstrating research impact in a public debate should appear in the main body (and using footnotes) through selective quotations from media etc. (making clear that there is a fuller body of evidence that can be referred to)
- Continued case studies from previous REF are eligible providing that they meet the criteria
- Do not worry about any overlap with the ‘KEF’ as it is still in development
Neil Fleming (University of Worcester) is a former Research Officer (2017-19) and Steering Committee Member (2015-19), History UK.