Help Us Write a Book About Research Impact

Academic research is supposed to have an impact. It can have an impact in policy-making, in practice, in teaching, to the general public, and of course in the academic discourse. Some forms of impact materialize quickly, while other contributions take time to show an effect. One form of impact is not per-se better than another form of impact. The assessment of how good (or bad) impact is may depend on many factors; the perspective from which you look at it, the time it takes to fully comprehend. By and large, the generation of impact is the legitimation basis for modern knowledge societies — societies in which knowledge is at the core of political and economic decision-making, social and cultural life — to invest in academia. If academia ceases to have an impact it loses its raison d’être. Impact is what differentiates meaningful academic work from mere busywork. It makes the difference between signal and noise.

But academia often struggles with creating the right conditions to achieve impact and to build tools to make it visible. To a large degree this is because academia fails to systematically conceptualize impact, to understand how knowledge emerges and how it subsequently reaches different audiences. Symptoms of this mis-conceptualization are:

  • An abridged comprehension of what societal impact is, for instance by reducing it to countable outputs (e.g., patents or publications) and ignoring valuable yet not countable practices. We focus too much on outputs and outcomes and ignore how these came about.
  • A lack of problem awareness, which is shown by the fact that scholarly communication and impact (in contrast to publishing and publications) plays practically no role in the training of young academics.
  • Bad proxies for assessing impact that confuse attention with relevance and thus classify studies that are the academic equivalent of click-bait as particularly impactful.

We argue that academia struggles with creating/measuring/generating impact because it struggles to conceptualize and structurally anticipate it. We are missing a systemic perspective on impact that is grounded in the fact that different forms of meaningful academic work show very different forms of impact. This is all the more pronounced as digitalization entails changes in the way scientific knowledge is produced, organised and distributed.

The Book Project

Perhaps counter-intuitively, we are trying to address this issue by writing a book. By deconstructing the concept of impact, we hope to provide food for thought and new directions in ways to think about research impact.  We have been pondering the idea for years, have talked to anyone who would listen, and filled notebooks with ideas, quotes, and references. By now we have a concept in mind, a structure and outlines for each chapter and are in the middle of writing. We have chosen a language that is provocative, but hopefully constructive and that challenges established conceptions about impact and offers alternatives.

This article by Benedikt Fecher and Sascha Friesike originally appeared on the LSE Impact of Social Sciences blog as A Systemic View of Research Impact – An Invitation and is reposted under the Creative Commons license (CC BY 3.0).

Our idea is to understand the impact of academic research from the root, i.e. to address not only the measurability (and all the problems that arise), but also the systemic prerequisites for impact to occur. We look at the individual researcher, the organisation in which s/he works, the incentive structure, measurement and evaluation methods, and ethical implications. Central to our thesis, is that the prerequisite for impact is the connectivity of knowledge and thereby the mutual interaction of stakeholders involved in its creation and processing. Ultimately the questions that concerns us, are what role research plays in society and how we can create a research system with impact at its core?

The book is a work in progress and of course we hope that it will spark a discussion about the pathways to and conditions for impact. This is why we are writing it in an open and participatory fashion. Whenever we have a working version of one of the chapters we will make it available for comments and suggestions. Now that we have a first chapter ready, we would like to share it with you. Please feel free to leave comments and ideas or reach out if you have suggestions that go beyond a comment. We appreciate your efforts and hope to jointly develop a book that academics in many/a variety of fields and cultural backgrounds can draw from and that will help us all to conduct more meaningful academic work.

About the first chapter

This chapter discusses the organisation of academic institutions. We have currently titled it: “Organization of Research: From bureaucratic temples to creative communes.” The main argument is that research institutions are bureaucratic and almost religious in how they organize knowledge. We argue that both traits are not ideal for an environment in which researchers are supposed to skeptically assess the status quo. We outline the historical context to our current conceptions of research impact, the oddities is has created, and what might be done about it.

The chapter emerged out of hundreds of discussions with academics and research administrators and the general discontent that we perceived from them. As said before, the chapter is a work in progress and we are sure that it can benefit from your comments and ideas. We will, of course, attribute the comments we use as well. So please feel free to add to it, so that we can jointly develop something meaningful. You can find the chapter here.

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Sasha Friesike and Benedikt Fecher

Sascha Friesike (pictured) is an assistant professor at the KIN Research group of the VU University in Amsterdam and an associate researcher at Alexander von Humboldt Institute for Internet and Society in Berlin. Benedikt Fecher heads the “Knowledge and Society” research program at the Humboldt Institute.

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