Research Hacks #24: What we think about when we think about academic impact

No-one working in academia today needs me to point out the importance of the impact agenda, nor the way in which it coaxes us to understand the value of our work in particular ways and take it in particular directions. In this post I want to explore one narrow but important set of questions within the broader impact discussion: how the word “impact” itself predisposes us to think in particular ways, and how to understand those activities named by the word “impact” in ways that free them from those constraints.

After sketching in some of the context of the impact debate (section 1) I want to take a step back and consider the metaphor of “impact” itself, what it assumes about what we do, how it shapes the way we are encouraged to think about what we do, and what its blind spots might be (section 2). I will then offer an alternative and, to my mind, more fruitful and energising vocabulary to describe what the “impact” metaphor seeks to capture (section 3).


1. Context and definitions

The Australian Research Council (ARC) is currently introducing a national impact and engagement assessment, the purpose of which is to “examine how universities are translating their research into economic, social and other benefits and encourage greater collaboration between universities, industries and other end-users of research.”[1] The scheme will be piloted in 2017, and rolled out nationally in 2018 as part of the Excellence in Research for Australia (ERA) exercise, similar to the 2014 Research Excellence Framework (REF) in the UK.

In their Engagement and Impact Assessment Consultation Paper the ARC distinguish between “impact” and “engagement”.


The ARC, in conjunction with a number of Australia’s publicly funded research organisations, adopted the following definition of impact in its Research Impact Principles and Framework (2012):

Research impact is the demonstrable contribution that research makes to the economy, society, culture,  national security, public policy or services, health, the environment, or quality of life, beyond contributions to  academia.[2]

The UK REF defined impact as “an effect on, change, benefit to the economy, society, culture, public policy or services, health, the  environment or quality of life beyond academia.”[3]


If “impact” is a demonstrable and measurable change resulting from research, “engagement” is the collaboration that can lead to such change. The ARC consultation paper explains:

A recent trial by ATSE which developed metrics from ERA data chose to focus on research engagement only.  ATSE’s reasoning was that research impact focussed on the late stages of the research process and that  there are significant methodological difficulties in assessing impact. Therefore, ATSE defined engagement as:

the interaction between researchers and research organisations and their larger communities/industries for the mutually beneficial exchange of knowledge, understanding and resources in a context of partnership and reciprocity.

How will impact be measured?[4]

The ARC propose the following “impact measurement principles”:

  • Acknowledge that excellent research underpins impact.
  • Promote understanding through use of common language and terms associated with research impact.
  • Respect the diversity in research disciplines/sectors in demonstrating research impact.
  • Cooperate in developing a set of common, cost effective and efficient parameters for data collection and reporting.
  • Adopt a consultative approach with stakeholders in regards to implementing impact reporting in support of future research investments.
  • Encourage, recognise and reward positive behaviour in planning, monitoring and evaluating research impact.


2. How the metaphor of “impact” nudges us to think in particular ways

It is not my purpose here to interrogate the rationale behind assessing research impact. This has been widely discussed, and the ARC consultation paper itself raises important questions about bias towards some disciplines over others, about measurability and about short-termism.[5] I want rather to pick away a little at the metaphor of impact itself, not simply to criticise it but to begin to re-frame that which it names in ways that can resonate more engagingly with colleagues in the arts and humanities.

We all know that words matter. The schoolyard chant “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” doth protest too much. Words don’t just hurt us, they make us. The limits of our language mean the limits of our world,[6] we all live by metaphors,[7] and she or he who sets the vocabulary of a debate is half way to winning it.

So what does the metaphor of “impact” foreground, what does it leave in the shadows, and what, as a metaphor, does it say about the activities it names?

  • First of all, it is impersonal. The primary use of the term is in relation to bodies which “come forcibly into contact with” or “press forcibly into” one another (OED). We think of impact craters, impact tests and impact zones.
  • Secondly, it is violent.
  • Thirdly, it implies a certain passivity in the body that receives the impact. We think of the impact of a projectile on an inert surface or on the ground, but the sort of relationships in which academics can make a difference are much more consensual and collaborative, as the ARC acknowledges in its definition of engagement.
  • Fourthly, it is unilateral. The world–thank goodness!–is not out there patiently waiting for academics violently to alter it, but the metaphor does not grasp the dynamic subtleties of the relationships involved in bringing about change. “Impact” keeps the focus on the researcher and their research, but the irony is that for many academics the great challenge when it comes to the impact agenda is moving away from a focus on “my research” and onto the needs of others.

None of these are reasons to jettison the metaphor altogether, even if such a thing were possible. But they are reasons to loosen its hold on our thinking.

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3. So how should we think about “impact”?

Language and making visible

My discomfort with the metaphor comes also from an observation and a conviction about the way we often use language in academia. We can focus on structures and processes to the point where they obscure the human beings whose complex lives and relationships those same structures and processes seek to describe and shape, and we can talk about human beings themselves in ways that filter our human complexity to leave visible only a narrow set of concerns captured in one local discourse or set of concepts. In my last book I explored at some length the dangers of qualifying the epithet homo with any term related to a specific discourse or area of human endeavour (homo economicus, homo faber, homo loquens…), and in the same spirit I try to be mindful of the following two principles when talking in an academic context:

  • wherever possible, speak of people as such, without qualification (for example as “stakeholders” or “employees”).
  • wherever possible, make people visible in the language we use. Don’t talk about “spaces” and “end users” if “groups of people” and “people who use our services” can do the job.

I want wherever I can to use language that does not obscure the complex human relationships at the heart of processes and policies but rather makes people visible, in all our unwieldy complexity. This, in fact is the “real world” of which we are so fond of speaking in the academy: the world of real people with sometimes overlapping and sometimes conflicting sets of responsibilities, convictions and relationships, only some of which are caught in filtered discourse. The real world is not the world of people reduced to a particular function or discourse, but people as such, inhabiting–and amenable to description in terms of–a Harlequin’s coat of overlapping discourses and never reducible to any one.

How, then, can we express the intention behind the metaphor of “impact” in a way that reflects this impulse to make people visible? Here is a proposal that may well sound naïve, but that I am convinced is far from simplistic: When we think about “impact” we should think about “helping people”. Here’s why I think the language of helping people is an improvement and a key to unlock new ways of thinking about the “impact agenda”:

  • It’s a more immediate, intuitive idea. We all have a sense of what it means to help someone, and we all know that helping people, when done well, is a good thing.
  • It is ordinary, everyday language, and therefore does not treat “impact” as something unusual or special. It frames academic “impact” as one instance of something we do a lot of in life, and something of which we all recognise the value already.
  • As a result, it foregrounds the worthwhile nature of “impact” activities regardless of whether there is a research assessment exercise to measure them or not. It locates the value of the activity in the activity itself in the first instance, not in its instrumental value for the assessment exercise.
  • It paints “impact” as the collaborative, relational venture which it is. There is nothing more annoying than being “helped” by someone who thinks they know exactly what you want and how you want it done. To be helped, someone must be known, at least in some relevant ways, and they have to consent to and welcome the help being offered. No such recognition is necessary for the metaphor of impact.
  • It is scalable. We have a sense of what it might look like to help people in small ways, and it is similarly not hard for us to imagine how large groups or institutions and the people in them could be helped.
  • It is more concrete than the abstract idea of “impact”. It brings us straight to real people’s lives, concerns and needs.
  • Finally, it makes people and their relationships visible.

So “helping people” isn’t just a simpler, more homely or more bleeding-heart alternative to “impact”; it reflects a radically different ideology and set of concerns. It predisposes us to think about situations in terms of reciprocal and mutual relationships and about the good of the other(s), rather than impersonal, unilateral, self-focused or instrumentalised interventions. Nor is it a simplistic idea. It can be accomplished in many complex ways and have many facets.

Privileging this language won’t change anything in itself, of course, but language is important and when we begin to see situations and opportunities differently then we become open to acting in new ways in response to them. When I ask myself the question of how my research can help people, and whom it can help, I find I have more ideas, and more excitement, then when I think in terms of what might be its “impact”.

There may well be more stages to move through in this re-framing of the idea of impact, and you are very welcome to suggest any that come to mind in the comments section below. But I do think that the shift to the paradigm of “helping people”, at least in the minds of colleagues in the arts and humanities as we think about our own research, can resonate with many of us in more productive and energising ways than discussions governed by the metaphor of “impact”.






[5] It is important to recognise that the definitions of research engagement and impact adopted may advantage  some disciplines over others. Some definitions may also lead to more emphasis being placed on short-term,  applied, or business focussed research over the longer-term public benefits derived from more fundamental  research. The intangible nature of some social benefits of research makes quantification difficult and so  qualitative approaches based on narrative explanations of the benefits of research projects have been  advocated to overcome this. Although more easily measured, overemphasis on industry engagement and  income measures on research can have long term negative implications. Narrow measures, if used in  isolation, can drive researchers to maximise measures associated with short-term input measures at the  expense of potential long-term economic and social benefits.

[6] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus 5.6. “Die Grenzen meiner Sprache bedeuten die Grenzen meiner Welt.”

[7] George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2003).