Exerting influence

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Impact literacy is a key challenge for scholarly communicators, writes Harriet Bell

‘Impact’ is one of the most talked about and hottest topics in academia right now. Although not a new concept, it is rapidly becoming a top priority, as ways to engage beyond the academy are demanded and traditional measures of quality and impact are scrutinised.

There are so many varying definitions of – and attempts to measure – what research impact is. In a recent global ‘impact readiness’ survey, more than 1,300 research community respondents used more than 18,000 words to describe what impact meant to them.

Impact literacy is one of the key challenges that we need to improve. Over a quarter of the researchers Emerald surveyed said there was a need for better training and increased resource to tackle the issue. This reflects a sentiment that impact can only be pursued meaningfully if those in the research community are empowered to understand ways to maximise it. Planning pathways to impact and demonstrating the change your research has affected can be a challenging and sometimes intimidating prospect for so many people. The research community needs help in terms of the who, how and what of planning for impact.

So do citations and traditional measures of impact such as Impact Factors actually equate to impact in the world beyond academia? Or do Impact Factors, and measures like them, simply perpetuate the perception that academic research is more valued for rigour and volume of citations from fellow academics than it is for prompting change in the real world?

Alongside national assessment frameworks, such as the Research Excellence Framework in the UK, Excellence in Research for Australia and the Dutch National Research Agenda, there is growing recognition from other bodies that traditional metrics cannot fully demonstrate the value of academic research. For example, seven of the UK’s research councils are signed up to DORA (the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment), which calls for wider and different indicators of influence beyond the journal impact factor when assessing research.

Many researchers are frustrated that the incentives in academia are disconnected from the impact they want to make. For instance, Emerald conducted a survey in 2017 among 1,600 authors exploring their experiences, opinions and perceptions of the use of academic research in practice. More specifically, it looked at how academics engage with those outside of academia. In response, 97 per cent said they believe their research has direct or indirect relevance beyond academia, but only 36 per cent felt incentivised to engage with non-academics. This is at a time when funding is increasingly dependent on being able to show influence on practice, policy and wider society.

There are implications for publishers to consider how to add value by maximising the impact of research. Innovating dissemination formats, reviewing potential barriers to access including embargo policies, investing in metadata for discovery and experimenting with open peer review and faster speed to publication are all important areas for continuous development.

Emerald is actively pursuing all of these areas, including the launch scheduled later this year of Emerald Open Research on the F1000 platform. We are also supporting the community to overcome barriers to impact by working in partnership with key agencies to strengthen connections between research, industry and wider society. We announced a partnership with CrowdHelix to encourage open innovation between research and businesses, which will help inform new dissemination pathways for us to support.

Nearly half of the researchers who responded to our impact readiness survey were looking for collaboration opportunities outside of their discipline or outside of academia. Publishers can use their role on the edge of research and practice by testing tools developed by academics. Emerald is taking research into action by joining an interdisciplinary research collaboration funded by the EPSRC to test a toolkit to improve equality, diversity and inclusion in research environments. We recognise this is just the start.

There is an imbalance between the significant incentives for researchers to be credited for the impact of their research, and the lack of incentives for the beneficiaries of that research – particularly outside of academia – to credit the research formally when it has influenced their practice. Publishers, in collaboration with other players in the scholarly communications ecosystem including librarians, research administrators, and funders, need to find better solutions to equip researchers with both the skills and tools to bridge that gap.

The need to offer practical support came out strongly in the research Emerald conducted. Comments such as: ‘We are getting lots of different advice but none of it clear’ and ‘there are lots of aspirational statements, but infrastructure and support lags’, are indicative of the frustration –many researchers and administrators experience. Nearly 40 per cent stated that communication and support could be improved.

With this in mind, Emerald is investing in ‘impact literacy’. We’ve partnered with Julie Bayley, one of the leading voices in the impact debate, to build tools and training services that can help the academic community become more impact literate. Our Impact Literacy Workbook takes a step-by-step approach for researchers to help create an impact plan.

Our Institutional Impact Health Check Workbook helps institutions benchmark how healthy they are in terms of supporting and generating impact, and identify how they can improve it. The newly launched ‘Real Impact Awards’, meanwhile, have been created to celebrate the changemakers within our industry that are committed to making a difference in three areas: Institutional impact; Team impact; and Individual impact. We’ve just had our first entry and urge more of the research community to get involved and tell their story by visiting our Real Impact website at emeraldpublishing.com.

There’s a long way to go and much to do, but we see our role beyond that of a traditional publisher, giving researchers and institutions the means to demonstrate the impact and positive change their work is having in the real world. We will continue to challenge ourselves to think and operate differently because research isn’t article shaped.

Harriet Bell is marketing director at Emerald Publishing