The research impact agenda can refresh scholarship


It is tempting to be suspicious of the research impact agenda – not least the new industry it has created.

With the value of a 4* impact case study in the 2014 research excellence framework estimated at £324,000, it is not surprising that specialist jobs in research offices, impact-focused workshops and consultancy opportunities have emerged. Impact is worth 25 per cent in 2021, up from 20 per cent in 2014, so staff are under pressure to gather suitable evidence of how their work has transformed the world beyond the academy.

There are also valid scholarly critiques of impact as it is conceived for the REF. In history, for example, the top-down paternalism that assumes research users and audiences are simply, passively, “there” to be impacted on by academics has been highlighted as particularly problematic.

But within the framework of the REF, we do have choices. There are ways to work with the grain of our intellectual values to “do impact” with integrity – and to enrich our research practices in the process.

Disciplines approach impact differently, but there is value for all researchers in examining what model of impact they have in mind. Often, it is seen as fundamentally a linear process: impact starts once the research is complete. The REF template reinforces this idea, requiring authors to account first for underpinning research – which can date back to 2000 for the 2021 exercise – before discussing impact. This structure will work for many submissions, but once you set that model aside, more creative routes to interweave research and impact and engage users and audiences right from the design stage open up.

I had been working with the John Lewis Partnership heritage services manager Judy Faraday for a few years when we saw an opportunity to try out a co-designed approach to research in and with the archives.

Senior managers in the director of personnel’s office were interested in how the company had previously handled pay policy during periods of economic difficulty. And we knew that the archive had a collection of documents on the blacklisting of the partnership for breaching government pay controls in the late 1970s, a time when the government was battling inflation.

It took time to focus in on the blacklisting as our topic. It emerged from a series of conversations, in between which I went away and did more research, before checking in with John Lewis colleagues to see how my findings resonated. None of us would ever have found the topic alone, but the academic journal article I wrote was stronger and the outputs produced for the company more valuable to them for my being open to shaping the research through dialogue.

During the process, Judy and I realised that other business archives could benefit from academic collaboration. They are usually small units in terms of staffing and budgets, a net cost to the parent organisation. Proving the value of historical records to a company focused on present business and future prospects is an ongoing challenge for archivists – involving academics can bring much-needed additional capacity and specialist research skills to those efforts.

We also knew that we needed input from other business archivists working in a range of different organisations and sectors. Building a network of collaborators started with a presentation at the 2017 Business Archives Council conference, which led to our first workshop. Talking through the many obstacles for business archivists – trying to find academic partners, align projects to current priorities and deliver outputs relevant to the business – the idea emerged of producing some tailored guidance for the sector.

We are just about to launch the guidance, plus some accompanying short films as requested by the participants. These materials will, I hope, prove useful and meaningful because they’ve emerged from a genuine process of co-production, at the core of which is a commitment to value archivists’ skills and expertise as equal and complementary to my own as a historian.

Reflecting on the process has also led to a journal article on the project, co-authored with one of my collaborators, which we hope will show that research can be prompted by impact as well as the more conventional way round of impact emerging from research.

There’s no doubt this approach to impact is intensive and time-consuming. To be producing academic research outputs at the same time as team-writing business-oriented documents, while also making new contacts, organising events, conducting interviews and editing film footage is hard work. Timescales become compressed, so tangible institutional support and recognition is essential. Flexible funding pots, appropriate workload allocation, provision for impact-focused research leave and, if required, reductions in submissable outputs expected are all worth considering.

My point is that impact isn’t just an “agenda” for funders and institutions. To see research and impact as interwoven seems to me to enrich both. To conceive of a research project with an “interested questioner” in mind gives the project purpose and energy. To pursue the research implications of a collaborative workshop moves that collaboration into a fresh intellectual dimension.

It won’t be for everyone, but it is a way of reframing impact in a way that speaks to the core concerns of scholarship. Borrowing from public sociology, asking “for what? for whom?” of our own fields is an act of self-conscious enquiry from which we can all learn.

Author Bio: Alix Green is a senior lecturer in history at the University of Essex.