Does social science ‘research with impact’ actually make any impact in the real world?

‘Real world impact’ is an increasingly significant part of the research process. But immature and improper definition of the term is leading to misrepresentation. We need to refresh the debate, argues Simon Linacre, Emerald's Head of Business, Management and Economics Journals

The need to demonstrate return on investment and social benefit is now commonplace, with pressure piled on researchers by business schools, institutions, corporate bodies, funders and via national assessment – REF (the UK’s Research Excellence Framework) being a clear example.

Academic research conducted by business schools and social sciences researchers can have a strong role to play in affecting change in behaviour, practice and policy; particularly through co-creation. 

But, whereas science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) research is, by its very nature generally straightforward to identify, the diffuse nature of impact from social sciences or business research has been, in contrast, difficult to track and quantify. 

Why should we care?
As one of the world’s leading publishers of social sciences and business & management research strongly invested in the idea of nurturing fresh thinking that makes an impact, we feel that it is incumbent upon us and our communities to evidence the impact social sciences makes on the real world. 

Emerald began life 50 years ago as a result of a group of business and management academics seeking to promote the publication of applied research. Half a century later in 2017, the need for this approach is even greater as funders demand return on their investment in academic institutions. Proving and showcasing the real change that has occurred as a result of this investment should become a fundamental part of the scholarly process.

Why should you care?
There are multiple stakeholders in the ecosystem who have different motivations but all of whom share an end goal. 

That is to increase their sphere of impact and affect positive change. 

These different groups also have many of the same challenges in doing this effectively. As a researcher, to navigate your way through a complex stakeholder map, it’s helpful to realize that many of the bodies that influence your success share your goal as well as your challenges. This kind of motivation map – which you could take a lot deeper and turn into a persona and empathy map – is a useful tool when thinking how to sell the value of your work to others. 

Three differing types of impact
Let’s think about three different types of impact for a minute – influence, attention and change. These all call for different approaches and tactics for a researcher, and have implications for what publishers can do better to listen to and support you.

These three areas represent different types of impact. There's: 
academic impact, most usually measured through citations

wider attention, often through the media or through consultancy which builds your brand and voice as a researcher

- and then there’s publicindustry and policy engagement, through which your research can contribute to a real change in practice or behaviours.

Which of these types of impact currently best represents the kind of impact that your work is making? Or that you’ve been aspiring to make?

How impact has been defined
So, how best to define impact? Or, what in the USA is often referred to as ‘engaged scholarship’?

In recent years, it has been defined as follows:

Impact implies changes in people’s lives. Such changes are positive or negative long term effects on identifiable population groups’ – United Nations Development Group

Our researchers tackle global, regional and local issues to make the world a better place.  Their research translates into economic, social and environmental impacts’ – University of Western Australia

Economic and societal impact is the demonstrable contribution that excellent social and economic research makes to society and the economy, and its benefits to individuals, organizations and/or nations’ – Economic and Social Research Council

Research impact is the effect research has beyond academia’ – University of York

An effect on, change or benefit to the economy, society, culture, public policy or services, health, the environment or quality of life, beyond academia’ – REF Impact

There are certainly some recurring themes in the above statements, such as: 

- ‘demonstrable contribution’
- benefits to humanity, individuals, communities, nations
- effect research has beyond academia
- benefits to society, economy, environment, public policy, health
- long-term change
- positive or negative, intended or unintended. 

Whatever the various strengths and weaknesses of these contrasting statements, one thing is clear – nobody has, as yet, provided a definition of research impact that satisfies everyone.

So, how would Emerald define impact?
This is surely the part where Emerald puts forward its own all-encompassing definition of impact that will, it is hoped, be universally accepted and adopted, isn’t it? Well, no actually. And, yes – sort of.

We don’t yet have a definition of impact that we’d be prepared to set in stone – but, for what it’s worth, this is our current working definition:

Mobilizing knowledge, so that everyone – whether they’re in academia or not – can be sure they’re making decisions that count and affect positive change. This is measured by provable benefits of research in the real world’. 

Here’s our thinking. Knowledge mobilization is a two-way co-creation process, which is a ‘win-win’. From the academic perspective, it brings inspiration, questions and often money and expertise from the world of practice and business into academia, resulting in new research and collaborations. And academic research which has been co-created with the world of professional practice or policymaking in mind can often more directly deliver insights that result in positive change over time.

The need for a new debate starts now!
Emerald is calling for researchers, research managers, librarians and practitioners to share the following on its newly launched Real World Impact blog:

- Your recommendations of solutions to some of the challenges outlined in this paper

- Your examples of research evidence changing the course of practice or policy in the real world, however small

Please share your thoughts in the Real World Impact blog to inspire and inform others. If you’re interested in writing for the blog, get in touch at

Emerald will be running a vote and a prize amongst the community for recommendations and examples shared. Follow the social media conversation using the hashtag #RealWorldImpact or #RWI to stay involved and informed.

Catch up on the latest from our Real World Impact campaign on our website! 


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