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Misunderstanding impact

The press (and Universities) love to refer to impact and the effect this or that action will produce. There seems to be a simple confusion between publicity and impact, though. Impact is a measurable outcome, directly from ones research, that has such an impact as to change people’s opinions, lives or habits. Reaching an audience is not sufficient if it is not measurable or if it does not change that audience in some way.

See some of these recent examples of non-impact:

“How Twitter will revolutionise academic research and teaching”

Therefore, the 21st century scholar has the tools not only to publish and disseminate, but also to facilitate the development of specialised audiences, and therefore of what is called “impact”: people read, and in turn write about your work, which is in turn read by others.

This would be internal scholarly impact, which is not classed as “impact”.

“Chosen academics to broadcast their research on BBC Radio 3”

David Petts, lecturer in archaeology at Durham University, said that he was, in part, motivated to enter the competition by the impact agenda, although he recognised that it would be difficult to measure the impact of increasing the public’s historical understanding through his broadcasts.

This is a realistic recognition, but the desperation today to be seen in the media as a means of impact is misguided. To quote the ESRC on “What is Impact?”:

A key aspect of this definition of research impact is that impact must be demonstrable. It is not enough just to focus on activities and outputs that promote research impact, such as staging a conference or publishing a report. You must be able to provide evidence of research impact, for example, that it has been taken up and used by policy makers, and practitioners, has led to improvements in services or business.

Above all, research must be of the highest quality: you can’t have impact without excellence.

That is a sobering final sentence.

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