How Can You Measure Your Research Impact as a Postgrad?

The phrase ‘research impact’ gets bandied about often in academic circles.

Academics have to show evidence of their research impact when they seek jobs, apply for promotions, write grant applications, and participate in research assessments (in NZ: the PBRF). Being able to prove the impact of one’s research is crucially important for career progression in research roles.

But when you’re a research student, this ‘impact’ stuff can all be a bit confusing. If you’re just starting out with your Masters or doctoral research, is it too early to talk about its impact? Are you supposed to pull out a crystal ball to predict your impact in the future? How on earth can you measure the impact of research that isn’t finished yet?

A drop rippling in a pool of water

First things first: what do we mean by ‘research impact’? There are loads of definitions out there, but put simply, we’re talking about the difference your research makes in the world.

Research can have an impact on communities, policy, the environment, economies, individuals, and of course on subsequent scholarship (as other researchers read and cite your work). Tracking your personal research impact enables you to make more compelling arguments for research jobs and funding; and as institutions track their collective research impact, they can make similar arguments about their shared research strength.

For some research students, particularly those who have published, there may already be ways you can quantify and demonstrate the impact of your research. But even if your research is not out into the world just yet, you can prepare to track and measure its impact once it is released.

So: how do you measure your research impact? Here are a few options. But please keep in mind, it’s OK (and quite normal) if you can’t find evidence of your research impact yet! For many researchers, it takes years to build momentum before you can detect any quantifiable measures of impact. These are good techniques to understand, even if they don’t return results for your research just yet.

Impact on scholarship

When you are cited by another scholar, you have an impact on their research; so citations are often used as evidence of impact. If you have published your work, you can keep track of how often (and by whom) it is cited. This is called ‘bibliometrics.’ There are many bibliometric tools out there, and this LibGuide from our colleagues at Te Mātāpuna (AUT Library) gives a great comparison of 3 major ones: Google Scholar, Dimensions, and Scopus. Which tool/s are best for you will depend on your field of research, so seek advice from your supervisors before doing a deep dive.

There are a couple of terms that can be helpful to understand when looking at your scholarly impact. Firstly, scholarly impact is often measured with an ‘h-index‘ value. This is a numerical score representing a researcher’s number of publications and citations. It’s calculated like this: in order to have a score of h, you need to have at least h publications with at least h citations each. So if you have 2 publications with at least 2 citations each, your h-index is 2.

Secondly, it’s important to know that academic journals typically have an ‘impact factor‘ that represents their quality and credibility. When researchers publish, they often aim to publish in journals with a high impact factor as that carries more prestige, and makes it likely that their research will reach a wider audience. However, high impact factor journals can have tougher standards for publication and higher rejection rates.

Scholarly impact metrics are widely used, but there is a lot of discussion about their limitations – particularly because no one metric will work equally well across all disciplines. It’s worth understanding what an h-index or a journal impact factor is, but it’s also very important to become familiar with how scholarly impact is measured in your particular field of research. For some researchers, blog mentions or retweets might be a valid way of showing impact – it depends on what makes sense for your specific type of research.

Impact on policy

It’s relatively easy and common practice to find evidence of research impact in scholarly literature. But more and more often, researchers are showing their impact on the so-called ‘grey literature’ – publications that draw upon research for non-academic purposes (think policy documents and public sector working papers). If you have published research of interest to policymakers, you may be able to find evidence of its use in their publications.

AUT has recently subscribed to Overton, which allows you to identify any mentions of your research in the grey literature. Overton is really simple: just enter your name in a search bar, and it will tell you if your research is cited in any of its indexed publications. It’s certainly not expected for postgraduate researchers to be cited in policy documents; but in my Overton browsing, I found a few appearances from AUT students (woohoo you high achievers!). This is definitely a tool to keep in mind if you wish to pursue a research career with potential policy impacts.

Broader views of impact

More and more often, academia is recognising the positive social, environmental, and cultural impacts of research in ways that have traditionally been underrepresented. If your research is never cited, but it changes the lives of people in a particular community, how do you demonstrate that?

Some researchers take a qualitative approach here, collecting testimonials or using social impact frameworks to demonstrate the value of their research. Some have developed custom impact instruments for quantifying social impact in their fields. And many are now tracking so-called ‘altmetrics’: measures of impact that are perhaps a little less traditional, but take a wider view of how research can make a difference.

The aptly-named Altmetric Explorer database is a great tool for providing an expanded snapshot of your research impact. You can search for a particular research output, or just your name, and discover (across a broad range of sources) what kind of attention your work is getting online. Again our colleagues at Te Mātāpuna come to our aid with another LibGuide on alternative metrics for measuring research impact, including details on how to use Altmetric Explorer.

Learn more about measuring your research impact

We’ve just scratched the surface of some research impact tools here, but there is lots more to learn. To coincide with AUT’s new subscription to Overton, there are some workshops coming up which explore research impact measures in more detail. Postgrad research students are welcome to attend!

You may also like to browse the Metrics Toolkit, which has loads more info on many ways of measuring research impact.

About Anaise Irvine

Dr Anaise Irvine is the Editor of Thesislink and leads the Researcher Education and Development team at Auckland University of Technology. Her PhD research analysed how contemporary films and novels represent genetic engineering as a social justice issue. These days she works with researchers at all levels to improve their research skills, and the most obscure of her own research skills is being able to turn novels into phylogenetic trees!

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