Scholars have always been concerned about the impact of their research within the academy. Reputations and careers are built on the authority that results from a body of influential work.
But things are changing. Today academics are facing increasing pressures from governments and funding bodies to rethink the ways in which they conceptualise research impact.
I recently attended an IAS masterclass on Socialising Research in which Professor Robyn Owens (@robynowens), UWA’s Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Research, offered insights into the rapidly evolving Australian research landscape and outlined ways to get research results noticed and used within the academy and beyond. It is no coincidence that this was the second conference on research effectiveness that I have attended within a month at UWA!
The focus on research impact is based on three principles.
• Universities create knowledge
• Knowledge has value
• Research is publicly funded and should be shared
The academy has not always approached knowledge in this way.
Professor Owens offered the marvellous example of mathematician G. H. Hardy who wrote the 1940 essay ‘A Mathematician's Apology’. For, Hardy, the best kind of intellectual theory had no real life application at all. The ideal of ‘pure knowledge’ was seen to reflect the highest calling of the academy. Hardy died in 1947, so luckily he will never know that the number theory he developed is now a fundamental part of internet banking security systems!
Academics solve problems.
When Professor Owens asked how we saw ourselves as researchers, the answers reflected our disciplines. We were ‘historians’, ‘anthropologists’ and ‘linguists'. She reminded us that a discipline is merely a set of rules that a group of scholars use to solve problems. For example, the problem of obesity is tackled very differently across the disciplines of Law, Politics, Sports Science, Urban Planning and Psychology. I love this structural inversion. Our role as researchers often involves questioning conventional wisdom, yet we often fail to examine the institutional logics we work within.
The political landscape of academia is changing.
Australian funding bodies are increasingly influenced by European impact agendas, including the UK’s “Pathways to Impact” which I wrote about in a previous blog post. In 2010 the Australian Research Council (ARC) launched the Excellence in Research for Australia (ERA) Initiative which evaluates the quality of research by Australian universities. Fields of research at each university are ‘scored’ as being above or below ‘world standard’ using a combination of metric evaluation and peer review. A contentious process!
The research impact of individual researchers has traditionally been measured by the extent to which their research has influenced the advancement of their discipline. This can be indicated by the quality of the journal in which work is published, reviews and reactions, article downloads and patents – however is generally measured by the number of citations the work receives.
While the number of times fellow academics reference your work provides a helpful indication of impact, the system has many limitations. A high number of citations is not proof of research quality in itself. The statistic is also notoriously difficult to measure. Different platforms can provide wildly different estimates (ie: Google Scholar vs. Web of Knowledge). The processing of ‘getting published’ can take a long time - months or sometimes even years. For information to be 'sticky' it must be relevant and this time lag can be frustrating. In addition, the pay walls of academic journals often prevent public audiences (including the media) from accessing the original article.
Academics should actively promote their research.
Out of 3,303 research papers published by UWA in 2011, 58% have no citations (yet). This statistic is more notable for its commonality among major universities than its size. Once a work is published there is a window of opportunity during which it tends to be discovered - around 2-3 years after publication. So how can we promote research during this pivotal time?
Professor Owens outlined several ways in which online platforms can used by academics to boost visibility of new knowledge;
- Write for media outlets that have been specifically created for academic engagement with public audiences such as The Conversation.
- Where appropriate, use multimedia to share ideas on social platforms like YouTube.
- Integrate collaboration into the research project itself. Can you create an online platform that can be used as a resource for other scholars or public audiences? Or perhaps even get the public involved in the creation of research itself?
- Start a blog to share your research and build a reputation within your area of expertise.
- Use social media to engage with communities and contribute to conversations.
Where do I start?
Academics are intellectual entrepreneurs. Much of our knowledge is self-taught and to a certain extent it is the responsibility of each individual researcher engage with new technologies. This being said - there is a clear need for support and advice in this area. It is for this reason I will be launching a multi-part series of blog posts written for academics in the humanities that will provide a guide to online reputation building. It's something I have been thinking about for a while.
The project will be a learning process for me too. I have worked for several years as a digital marketing manager in the private sector however am looking forward to your feedback which will help me learn more about the complexities and challenges involved faced by scholars in this space.