Within academia, two types of impact are commonly referenced – academic impact and research impact.

Both are often used within a wide range of contexts and can be expressed through similar diction. However, there are some fundamental and important differences between the two.

What is Academic Impact, or Academic Research Impact?

Broadly speaking, academic impact is a measure of the reach and significance within academia of research outputs, typically research papers, and the frequency with which they are picked up and utilised by others in the space. This is typically measured in terms of bibliometrics and citation counts, and contributes towards the h-index of a researcher.

As Bærøe, K., Kerasidou, A., Dunn, M. et al. put it, we “…can distinguish between research impact within and beyond Academy. The first kind of research impact refers to publications, citations, presentations at Academic conferences, but can also encompass supervision and training of new researchers who will continue the same research tradition.”

How Is Research Impact Different from Academic Impact?

Research impact focuses instead on the wider impact of research beyond academia. The Vertigo Ventures definition holds that:

“In general we can say that research impact is the demonstrable change or benefits to the wider society, economy or the environment that arises through research.

The impact we are referring to is not about journal factors, bibliometrics or H indices.

It is what demonstrable difference is being made, outside of academia, in the real world.”

Why Is the Difference between Academic Impact and Research Impact Important?

The two understandings cover very different territory.

Traditionally, academic impact has looked at the influence of academic works within other academic activities. This is a useful method in understanding how far research has helped inspire other academics and proved to be a useful or pioneering piece of work to build upon.

On the other hand, research impact considers the wider and long-term results of the research, and is typically considered to be more aligned with applied research. This is not always the case – impact is often unpredictable, and pure research can also have significant impact, such as the long-term benefits of the discovery of penicillin.

Research impact has continued to develop in prevalence due to a number of factors. These include political interest in demonstrating value of academic activities to the taxpayer, a desire amongst academics to carry out purpose-driven and participatory action research to realise wider goals, and global pressures, such as existential challenges around climate change and the need to leverage high-quality academic research to work towards solutions.

So while academic impact adopts an approach for understanding the influence of papers and other academic outputs, research impact is more concerned with the long-term effects on society, culture, the economy, the environment and other “real world” spheres.

What Are Some Examples of Research Impact?

By its nature, research impact is complex, and not all impacts can be planned for. Furthermore, research impact can be positive – for example, the transformation of a neglected district into a cultural hub of a major city – or negative, such as revoking a policy that has been proven to have negative effects on a regional population.

Research impact might lead to a change in policy to support marginalised groups, the development of new technology to improve the sustainability of construction methods, or drive the creation of more efficient ways to cultivate land for bolstering the local economy.

How Do We Measure Research Impact?

Research impact is measured through its reach and significance within the wider world.

This could include the extent to which a policy change has driven positive societal change, or the additional revenue driven by the adoption of a new approach that increases the efficiency of agricultural production.

There is a lack of consensus over impact measurement and application across disciplines. For academics working in highly applied fields with clear knowledge transfer or industry collaboration, impact is easily realised. But for more exploratory and fundamental research, outputs are mores distant and outcomes are harder to explain and measure.

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