Monday 20 March 2017

Is academic impact useful as a proxy measure for real world impact?

In academia we have various measures of "success". Some of the more common measures are "how many papers did we publish in reputable journals" and "how many other academics went on to use my work or refer to my work". We count citations, check out our h-index, and perhaps even check the number of other academics talking about our work on social media. We'd all like our work to be useful to others. Of course, any measure of success can be gamed. Academics may cite themselves to boost citation counts, use clickbait paper titles to attract attention, and select journals for prestige rather than availability to the community.

However, to be useful to other academics is not the same as to be useful to the rest of the world. Are we also having impact outside of academia? Some blue sky basic research is unlikely to do this (but perhaps likely to be cited by academics). Some applied research can have immediate impact on medical outcomes, law and policy, societal attitudes, civil rights, environmental strategies and business practices.

The UK tries to measure this kind of research impact by asking universities to submit REF Impact case studies. These are summary documents, written by academics, describing what impact they've had. They're not easy to write, or to evidence, and yet they are used as part of the REF exercise measuring research quality, whereby Higher Education funding bodies distribute research money to the universities.

How can we make it easier for academics to find and present their impact? Before we answer that, is the whole exercise worth doing anyway? We need to know if we could just cheaply count citations and use this as a proxy for real world impact. After all, if a paper is popular with academics, surely it's also going to be useful to the rest of the world too?

We've done the analysis in Measuring scientific impact beyond academia: An assessment of existing impact metrics and proposed improvement. TL;DR: the answer is 'no'. Academic impact is not correlated with more comprehensive impact in the real world. We're not surprised, but we needed to prove it. But don't take our word for it: we've made all the data available. Try it yourself.

On with the next steps now... James will now be data mining the real world impact of scientific research, from the collection of unstructured documents out there in news archives, parliamentary proceedings, etc. We expect NLP, data mining and machine learning challenges ahead as we trace the movement of academic ideas and results out from academia and into the rest of the world.

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