Section 1: Impact and the media

This section covers:

  1. The challenge of demonstrating REF impact for communications offices

  2. Significant impacts that can arise from media engagement



  • Getting research into the media is a good way to get it read about, learned from, and hopefully put to use and the benefits felt by others. It is this sense of “benefit” from putting the results of research to use that the Research Excellence Framework calls “impact” (REF impact). Media coverage on its own, however, even wide and high-profile coverage of the sort that communications teams aim to generate, has no value for the purposes of REF if there is no evidence of the impact – the benefit – it has led to).

  • The performance indicators typically used by communications teams are ill-suited to providing the evidence needed to demonstrate impact for an exercise such as REF, which focuses on long-term benefits of the research that might arise from media coverage. For example, circulation and viewing figures provide evidence of reaching an audience, but without evidence that the audience benefited from reading about the research, such figures have very little value as impact, or to demonstrate impact.

  • Claims that research caused REF impact based on audience numbers are open to the critique that those who engaged with the material may not have understood it, nor acted on or benefited in other ways from what they learned, and so there may be no lasting impact from the work no matter how impressive the coverage was at the time 

  • As such, media coverage is typically seen only as “engagement”, or a “pathway to impact” and not as impact in its own right. This in turn can lead to academics and even professional services staff to conclude that it is not worth engaging with communications teams and the media, which is itself problematic (and misconceived, as we shall see).

  • However, significant impacts can arise from media engagement, for example: 

    • Uptake of research by stakeholder organisations, leading to benefits for them or their clients, patients or others. For example applying findings in new operational contexts, developing new products, treatments or services, or increasing charitable donations.

    • Changes in public awareness, attitudes or behaviours. For example leading to increased museum visits, or talking to their doctor about a new treatment option.

    • Influencing public policy by raising awareness of research among politicians or civil servants, or by making the researcher more visible and hence more likely to be invited to sit on or provide evidence to committees that guide policy.

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