The Impact Factor: How to Raise Your Public Profile

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The “Impact” item on your department’s Research Excellence Framework submission can make a big difference in rankings, but it also reflects something more meaningful: how good you are at communicating the results of your research and teaching.

The REF Assessment Framework defines “impact” as an “effect on, change or benefit to the economy, society, culture, public policy or services, health, the environment or quality of life, beyond academia.” This has worried social sciences researchers: it’s harder to show that your journal article has changed the world than it is for, say, academics who invent new medical technologies. But much of that concern is misplaced: if your work gets attention, influences public policy or private actions, you are having an impact. Here are some tips on how to prove it.

Don’t hide your light.

In every university there are lecturers who carry out excellent research and are content to “just get on with it.” Meanwhile, colleagues whose work may not be as crucial gain kudos thanks to shameless self-promotion.

It’s time for the hard-working but shy to step up and be counted. When you host a seminar or conference, make a presentation to a community group, or publish your work, get the word out. Make sure your activities are noted in departmental newsletters, but also tell the university communications office: they have staff who can craft a press release and get your work to the local and national press. They also have their own publications, ranging from alumni magazines to the university Web site, and they’re desperate for great content. This raises your profile both internally and externally.

Be media-friendly.

Don't be afraid to talk to talk to the press yourself. Journalists can and do get it wrong, so see if your university offers media training for academics. The tips and practice you gain can make radio, TV and newspaper interviews less daunting. Press coverage provides evidence of your work having an effect on public perceptions and discussions.

Keep track of who cites you.

Use Google and citation databases regularly to see who has relied on your work, and keep a list of the results. You may be pleasantly surprised: the author knows of colleagues whose research was mentioned in Parliamentary debates, cited in key court cases, and used by UK and overseas government departments formulating new policies and practices.

Ask for recognition.

Ever wonder why some colleagues are prize-winners? It may be because they have the brass neck to enter their own names in competitions. Give it a go: your research paper, book, or research project could be in the running for public recognition. Likewise, if your teaching has inspired students to go on to great things, consider trying for a teaching award through your university or teaching fellowships through organisations like the Higher Education Academy.

Tot up your real-world influence.

Each year, look back at what you’ve done and write it up—you could make dual use of this in personal developmental planning and annual reports, not just the REF. Have you carried out consultancy, advising industry, public bodies, schools or individuals? Have you worked in partnership with organisations outside the academy, either directly through research or teaching, or by serving on task forces and advisory bodies? Has your teaching improved practice in your area of expertise, locally or nationally? These activities are impact in action, and shouldn’t be overlooked.

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