I’m reading through the Stern review in preparation for various impact related things I’m doing in the next few weeks. It takes the view that the 6,975 impact case studies produced and £55 million estimated to have been spent on the impact element of the last REF has clearly contributed to “an evolving culture of wider engagement, enhancing delivery of the benefits arising from research”. These costs could be mitigated in future because “participating institutions now have processes in place to capture the information required”. Or perhaps they might expand, as the infrastructure surrounding the assessment described here by Les Back seems likely to grow, even if the number of case studies does not increase much as per Stern’s recommendations.

Offering institutions more flexibility in the distribution of case studies (as opposed to requiring a certain number of case studies proportionally to the number of staff submitted to a unit of assessment) could have interesting results. As will the recommendation for ‘institutional level’ impact case studies, both in terms of identifying cross-disciplinary impacts which might otherwise fall between the cracks and perhaps justifying institutional level investments in impact capacity: 

Some of these aspects of environment reflect the strategy, support and actions of the institution as a whole. This has not been assessed in REF2014 and we recommend that this should be captured in a new Institutional Environment Statement, which complements the Unit of Assessment Environment Statement.

Environment and impact are mutually supportive and should be seen together. The strategy and support of impact are closely linked to the environment for research at both Unit of Assessment and institutional level. Therefore, it is also recommended that the aspects captured by the Impact template of REF2014 should be incorporated into both the Unit of Assessment and Institutional level Environment statement.

This will involve recognising:

  • the features of the research environment that are the product of institutional level activity, including steps taken to promote interdisciplinary and other joint working internally and externally and to support engagement and impact, beyond that which is just the aggregate of individual units of assessment
  • the future research and knowledge exchange strategy of the HEI, as well as the individual Units of Assessment, and the extent to which both have delivered on the strategies set out in the previous REF
  • the individualism of the HEI and the eclecticism of academic life within it
  • the contribution that its academics make to the wider academy (‘academic citizenship’).

Each statement would focus on how the institution or Unit of Assessment enhances the development of research capability within it, how it provides opportunities for high quality research and related activities, how it motivates and rewards researchers, and the contributions made to the wider academic community.

Additionally, weakening the link between impact and research outputs could have interesting implications for social media activity, expanding the range of activity which can be measured and argued to lead to impact.

The review suggests that the potential range of impacts possible to record was made narrower by the assessment process. It also advocates emphasising cultural impact and now recognising impact internal to higher education, including though hopefully not limited to teaching:

We recommend that impacts on public engagement and understanding are emphasised and that impacts on cultural life be specifically included. Better to align the REF with the TEF, we also recommend that research leading to major impacts on curricula and /or pedagogy within or across disciplines should be included; and in order to encourage long-term, interdisciplinary research endeavours, we recommend that ground breaking academic impacts such as research leading to the creation of new disciplines should be included.

This was the rather unlikely connection suggested in Jonathan Wolff’s Guardian article yesterday. I have massive respect for Wolff, who taught me as an undergraduate and is the only lecturer who has ever consistently held my attention, which left me taking this article more seriously than I otherwise might have. To be fair, he’s not talking about the ‘impact agenda’ as such but rather a broader tendency of which the ‘impact agenda’ can be taken to a bureaucratic and unlikable leading edge. His point is that there is a change taking place in the criteria by which ‘success’ is measured in academic careers. Furthermore, it is a change which is bringing activities motivated by private commitments, often done in private time without recognition, into the sphere of public assessment. In doing so, ‘academic success’ comes closer to life success. Or perhaps life success is being collapsed into career success. I’ll be pondering this for a while:

The final category is a recent innovation, by which I mean that it has crept in over the last 20 years. It goes by various names: knowledge transfer, knowledge exchange, public engagement or impact. Specialists will shudder at my ignorance in lumping all of these together. To transfer knowledge is to take your research and apply it outside an academic context. Knowledge exchange is a less imperialistic version of the same thing, recognising that one might actually learn something oneself in the process. Public engagement can be roughly the same thing yet again, but perhaps with other people’s research rather than your own. As for “impact”, it seems to be whatever the research councils have decided it is this month.

This final category, however, reflects a quiet revolution in the way in which universities conceive of themselves and their contribution. Not so long ago, if you were a school governor, or edited a community newsletter, you kept quiet about it. Either it was regarded as entirely your own affair or, even worse, a distraction from the real business of research and teaching. Now it is public engagement. We seek it out, promote you for it, and crow about it on the university’s website. Cynics might think that it is the invention of web pages, and the need to fill them with something, that has made the difference. Or that it is encouraged only because universities are continually under pressure to demonstrate their “relevance”. But whatever the explanation, it is encouraging that a successful university career is now somewhat closer to a successful life than it once was.


Part 2 of this post. I had to stop writing because the battery on my phone was dying. Though the fact that I can write part 1 of the post (on my phone in a coffee shop in Manchester while waiting for a train) and write part 2 of the post (from a desktop computer in Coventry later that evening) and this constitutes my preparation for a talk the following day is a practical example of what I’m driving at with the continuous publishing notion.

  • At the level of the individual, continuous publishing doesn’t in principle represent any additional workload. One of the most frequent questions I’ve encountered when running social media workshop is “how do you find the time?”. Increasingly all my research related blogging and tweeting is part of the research process itself, rather than something external to it. I use blog posts in particular as a notebook within which to record and develop thoughts. I have a large collection of notebooks from the first half of my PhD filled with often illegible notes and an iPad filled with mindmaps. The only difference with how I now use my blog is that the entries are indexed, easier to read and available to the wider world.
  • Two important consequences flow from this. Firstly I take more care about articulating ideas because others can read them and, furthermore, it’s easier to do this because my typing keeps up with my thoughts whereas my handwriting often doesn’t (at least not if I’m trying to ensure their legibility later). Secondly categorising and tagging my posts inculcates reflexivity about the research process. It helps elaborate a sense of research agendas, as well their different sub strands, which is useful in a purely intellectual sense, as well as being helpful for forming practical publishing projects that can flow from them. It also inculcates reflexivity about your work flow: prior to consciously embracing continuous publishing, my experience of research involved a cycle between an (overly) chaotic process of putting together raw materials & threading them together and an (overly) structured process of fitting these into the formal requirements of journals, publishers, the PhD etc. Now it feels much more unified. I understand the different things I do more, the conditions amenable to them and how this all fits into a coherent sector of my life ‘research’ as distinct from other sectors. It helps put research in a box, though not in a way that feels restrictive. It also helps you work from anywhere and fit the fragments together in a unified way at a time that’s convenient for you.
  • I think there’s a general and often quite vague fear about sharing on the internet which I”ve encountered a lot when running workshops. I don’t share it. Perhaps I’m being hopelessly naive but, in my mind, if you share your work in some venues, why not share it in others? I don’t think the internet is filled with nefarious academic predators waiting to steal your ideas as soon as you let your guard down. I do however think it’s filled with an enormous range of academics, far more diverse than any network you can encounter in face-to-face settings, who are just as eager to find direct and indirect interlocutors as I assume you are. Even if there are risks I think they’re manifestly outweighed by the benefits which accrue from open research. I passionately believe sharing can and should be a default option. It’s an impulse implicit in the act of publishing and, in so far as we are hesitant about it, I’d suggest that’s a consequence of social structures relating to academic careers, auditing and scholarly publishing perverting the practice of intellectual craftsmanship: making cultural products and sharing them.
  • In technical terms I think all you need to do continuous publishing is a blog and a twitter account. Link the two together and you posses an incredibly potent publishing platform which is free and entirely within your own control. Use twitter to follow people whose work you find interesting and who, perhaps, will find your work interesting. Once you post twitter updates for your new blog posts and discuss them with others, an audience will quickly begin to develop.
  • In doing so I think you maximise your online footprint and impact flows quite naturally from this. People know what work you’re doing, will often refer others to you, it helps publicise your books & papers and you become known for working in your area. It also helps bridge the gap with the world outside the academy. The greater your social media footprint, the easier it is for journalists (and anyone else for that matter) to find your work and to make contact with you. In turn the greater your social media footprint is, the easier it is for those who encounter the ensuing media coverage to find you online by searching for your name and/or your research topic. It’s an incredibly potent form of disintermediation which, I suspect, has yet to really effect the academy in the work it is likely to with time.

Some initial thoughts for a talk i’m doing tomorrow:

– what goes into producing a chapter or a paper? Lots of ideas, conversations, extracts from texts, chunks of writing etc. some of these have a social existence, in so far as they emerge out of formal or informal academic conversations, however most are private and few, if any, are meaningfully public?

– why is this status as public largely restricted to such ‘formal’ outputs? Is it some intrinsic characteristic of the activities which go into producing a paper or a chapter? Inevitably some significant cross-disciplinary variation here which I don’t feel qualified to make a conclusive statement about because it is an empirical question. However
I would contend that at least SOME of this largely private production can be ascribed to the restrictions of the communications infrastructure traditionally available to academics with these restrictions ossifying over time into seemingly ‘obvious’ norms of academic practice.

– these norms tend to restrict dialogue to the post-publication stage which, given the opportunity costs involved in engaging seriously with a paper, inevitably restricts the dialogues that emerge

– so why not try and seek dialogue at the pre publication stage? This would lead to a much broader array of dialogues because of the much lower opportunity costs attached to engaging with, say, a blog post rather than a paper

In the rest of the talk I will discuss:

– technical infrastructure required to do it
– benefits and costs to individuals
– its significance for impact
– my own experiences of trying this