Thing 11: Societal Impact

Traditional metrics, such as the h-index and the Journal Impact Factor, focus on the impact of research within academia. When measuring societal impact, the focus is instead on the contribution research makes to society, e.g. the economy, environment, culture etc.  

This is where alternative metrics come into play. If you haven’t already, work through the “Getting Started” section of “Thing 4: Emerging metrics” before reading this Thing. 

Terminology in this area is still shifting – so, in some cases you will find what we are referring to here as “societal impact” being called “research impact” or just “impact.” For the purposes of this Thing, we will use “societal impact” unless quoting a resource that uses alternative terminology. 


Getting Started   

Simply put, societal impact occurs when research is used outside of academia.  

The Australian Research Council defines: 

  • Research impact as “the contribution that research makes to the economy, society, environment or culture, beyond the contribution to academic research”, and; 
  • Research engagement as “the interaction between researchers and research end-users outside of academia, for the mutually beneficial transfer of knowledge, technologies, methods or resources”. 

The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) in the UK defines impact as the “demonstrable contribution that excellent research makes to society and the economy”.  Societal impact can include instrumental, conceptual, and capacity building. Read the “What is impact?” section on the ESRC website to learn more.  

Professor Mark Reed describes societal impact as “the good that researchers can do in the world”. He then breaks it down to ten types of impact (scroll down to “What types of impact are there?” to explore the definitions). 

Consider: Does your institution publicise a definition of societal impact? What is it?  

Exercise: Look up definitions of impact by funding agencies or research councils in your country and compare with the above definitions. Are there any similarities? What are the common themes?  


Learn More

What does research with high societal impact look like? How would you demonstrate societal impact? The best way to find out is to check out some of the impact case studies below: 

UCD research impact case study competition 2019

Watch the video “UCD research impact case study competition 2019”, which introduces ten brief impact stories from University College Dublin, to get an idea of how researchers communicate their impact stories. 

If you prefer to read, follow one or all of the links below and select two or three impact case studies to review: 

Consider: What are the strengths and weaknesses of the case studies you read? How can researchers keep track of their engagement activities and document evidence of research impact?  


Challenge Me

There is no set formula for demonstrating societal impact as measurements of success will vary between projects. Considerations include: determining what evidence needs to be kept to support an impact claim; appropriate benchmarks; measurements or metrics; and tools that can be used to measure or track impact. 

Read the “Types of research impact” section of the Research Impact page on the National Health and Medical Research Council in Australia that lists potential impact evidence for researchers to consider when starting to plan for impact.  

How does the citizen science project “Fireballs in the sky” demonstrate impact on their website?  

Consider: How might a researcher working on disability and access to public parks/playgrounds track and collect evidence of the impact of their research?