Demystifying research impact: What institutions & publishers can do

By: Una Farr, Wed Jun 28 2023
Una Farr

Author: Una Farr

As we work to address the world’s global challenges, demonstrating the impact of research is becoming increasingly important, with many funders requiring impact considerations in grant applications. However, there are different understandings of what research impact is, as well as different approaches to measuring it - which can make it quite a difficult concept to unpick.

Springer Nature recently held a panel discussion to discuss the different types of impact, and how institutions and publishers can support researchers. The panel consisted of five experts from around Springer Nature, along with one from ELIXIR, a European life science infrastructure:

  • Nick Campbell, Vice President Funder Relations, Springer Nature
  • Sir Phillip Campbell, Editor-in-Chief of Springer Nature
  • Joanne Kashmina, Head of Research Impact Solutions, Research Solutions t, Springer Nature
  • Corinne Martin, Senior Impact Officer, ELIXIR.
  • Ikuko Oba, Commercial Director Japan, Korea, Southeast Asia and Oceania, Springer Nature
  • Eugenie Regan, Vice President of Research Solutions, Springer Nature

With all panellists considering the concept of research impact from different areas of expertise, the discussion led to some fascinating insights. We summarise the key takeaways below.

Research impact: different meanings for different people

As mentioned above, ‘research impact’ can be a difficult concept to pin down, and Eugenie Regan commented: “We all think about research impacts slightly differently.” During the discussion the panellists touched on several different types of impact, including visibility and influence on the general public, affecting government policy, building research capacity, and more.

Ikuko Oba also acknowledged the varying meanings of research impact across different countries and fields. She noted that in Malaysia research impact might be about solving practical challenges such as agriculture; in Singapore they have a sector that focuses mainly on translational research; and in Japan basic research is being revisited. Corinne Martin provided the simplest definition of evidence, ‘change’:

“It’s when others are using your work to produce new results or inform decisions; when there has been an effect that you can measure and, ideally, have evidence that it happened.”

Demonstrating research impact

Corinne’s definition highlights another challenge, and that is measuring research impact. While academic impact is often measured through metrics such as usage and citations, societal impact is less tangible as a concept. During the discussion Corinne noted that when demonstrating impact, people “really need to keep an open mind” and be “inventive and creative” when it comes to finding evidence; it’s not a scientific exercise, it’s a process:

“You have to go through it and adapt it to your special circumstances, what your mission is, and the evidence that you're going to put together.”

One area where Sir Philip Campbell thinks that demonstrating impact has worked well is with the UK’s Research Excellence Framework (REF). Although the evaluation process is not always popular, it nonetheless makes people declare both their research and its societal impact, and 7,000 examples are available online from REF 2021. One example he highlighted was a research group at the University of Leeds that improved the predictions of extreme rainfall in seventeen African countries, validating their claims with nine different pieces of evidence, including download statistics and testimonials. Though it can be difficult to get corporate organisations to provide testimonials, as Nick Campbell pointed out, they are very strong evidence that resonates with governments and funders.

There’s now a huge variety of methods out there for demonstrating research impact, and tools such as Overton and Altmetric were noted as providing new insights into impact. This doesn’t always mean causality can be shown in the impact of research, but as Corinne noted, it’s not necessary to

What can institutions do?

Nick highlighted that when a piece of research is completed, some researchers want to move on to the next problem rather than making an impact beyond the lab with the solutions they have found. Similarly, Joanne pointed to a Springer Nature survey which found that researchers predominantly use academic metrics (downloads and citations) to measure the impact of their work.

Even when researchers are interested and recognise the importance of societal impact, it can be difficult to achieve. Ikuko pointed to forthcoming Springer Nature survey of researchers in Japan where 94% of those surveyed agreed on the importance of communicating their research to the community; however, 21% had not done this within the last three years, and 12% had never communicated their research.

Some of these findings suggest that researchers could be more inclined to share their research if they were given greater support and acknowledgement, and that institutions still need to do more to incentivise researchers to spend time on improving and demonstrating impact.

Nick and Ikuko also stressed the importance of research collaboration in improving impact. Institutions have an important role to play by making collaboration part of their research culture and helping researchers to make connections.

What can publishers do?

Open access and preprints have undoubtedly played an important role in opening up research to a wider audience, but as Joanne explained, just because something is accessible doesn’t mean that it’s understandable. There’s a need for publishers to provide other services, such as AI generated summaries, news articles and videos, to ensure that research is understandable to a larger audience and has a greater impact.

Publishers also have an important role to play in encouraging researchers. As Ikuko explained, part of the reason researchers don’t share their research is they don’t have the opportunity to do so, but it’s also because they don’t know how. Institutions and publishers need to show them how to do it. You can read more about some of Springer Nature’s recent work on open research and societal impact here.

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Una Farr

Author: Una Farr

Una Farr, a tech-curious Senior Content Marketing Manager based in London, delves into AI and research management on her blog, "The Continuing Rise of Collaboration". With a passion for empowering research administrators, librarians, and information professionals, she explores new trends and insights to foster knowledge sharing in the research community.