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Standard publishing advice often counsels scholars to try to place a manuscript in a top-tier journal with the most impact and then try for the next one down if a rejection is received. And faculty writers commonly do that when submitting their work to journals. Yet once a piece is published, after perhaps sharing it with a few colleagues or celebrating a win over Reviewer 2 on Twitter, most academics don’t keep up with what happens to it beyond a few glances at Google Scholar counts or an occasional self-citation.
Very few academic authors regularly connect their published work with community projects or potential colleagues working in the same area. Leaving the impact of your research up to chance, however, will most likely limit the number of readers and scope of influence it will receive.
In working with faculty writers, I often find many don’t view efforts to increase the reach of scholarly work to readers and users as part of closing the publishing loop. Once they have successfully written, revised and published an article, they consider the project completed. And as they turn to the next endeavor, they don’t systematically consider the full life cycle of journal articles, white papers and books that might expand their readership and usage.
Yet governments and individual higher education institutions have, in fact, started thinking about the impact of faculty scholarship in more complex ways beyond citation counts. In 2014 and again in 2021, the United Kingdom’s Research Excellence Framework, or REF, studied research impact from scholars across various colleges and universities to determine “an effect on, change or benefit to the economy, society, culture, public policy or services, health, the environment or quality of life, beyond academia.” Though not without criticism, particularly from humanities scholars and those concerned with managerial overreach into faculty matters, the REF assessment process raised the stakes for both academics and their institutions to think more intentionally about the life cycle of projects after their publication.
Similar movements are also underway at a number of institutions in the United States, including the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton Social Impact Initiative and Michigan State University’s Global Impact Initiative. A growing number of smaller private institutions, including my own, are also asking faculty members to demonstrate a link between scholarly and community work.
All that said, by and large, individual faculty members often don’t know how to increase the reach and impact of their scholarship. And while marketing and public relations offices on campuses can help promote linkages for donors, alumni and students, academic authors are responsible for communicating about their research among other scholars and expanding its impact beyond their own institutions to their community and the broader society. In the rest of this article, I will offer two models to help faculty members do that more effectively.
The first model is a program I run for second-year faculty members on my campus, in which I have people share a previously published work from the past academic year with two potential readers working on the same topic and two community or professional organizations that might find the research useful. Faculty members send an email or LinkedIn message to the readers noting they are working in the same area as they are and offering to connect or share ideas.
Sometimes such outreach pays off in the form of a productive discussion, the publication’s addition to a public bibliography on a topic or even an invitation to a future conference panel. At the very least, a deliberate connection increases the likelihood that someone else is aware of the work and may cite it.
A similar email sent to a community organization might note how published research backs an initiative the group has already embarked upon or offers a solution to a problem that the organization is trying to solve. We tackle all four contacts for at least one publication in a singular meeting, and many faculty members choose to do such “impact reach outs” for all publications they’ve completed within the past year.
A second option is for a faculty member to design a systematic method for reviewing the impact of their research across their career. The University of Michigan, for instance, offers a well-designed Research Impact Challenge in which graduate students and faculty complete a series of 10 activities within 10 days. In a recent interview I conducted with Rebecca Welzenbach, the first research impact librarian at Michigan, Welzenbach described to me how the challenge developed after hearing about a similar program at the 2018 Transforming Research Conference at Brown University. That first incarnation drew heavily on Stacy Konkiel’s book The 30 Day Impact Challenge. Initially developed as a way for Michigan’s graduate students to apply for ORCID iDs, digital identifiers of scholarly authors, before submitting their dissertations, the program later encouraged faculty to study their own research impact. Hundreds of UM faculty members and students have completed the challenge, and it has been viewed 21,000 times, averaging 500 views a month.
With just one challenge a day, the Research Impact Challenge provides a built-in time boundary for academics to complete often long-overdue career-advancement tasks. The model, as Welzenbach notes, deliberately starts with the quick win of applying for an ORCID iD, something that I completed in less than 15 minutes when following the challenge myself. Welzenbach notes, “If we can get them to do that step as the days go on, activities get a little bit more amorphous, until by the end I’m asking them to reflect on responsible research assessment.”
Not only is the time commitment that faculty members must make in the challenge relatively limited, the impact activities are portable and can be done in a variety of settings and purposes by faculty developers and academic staff in charge of promoting research impact. Welzenbach explained to me that “the idea was to make the activities discrete and modular, so people could either do them on their own time pretty quickly or with us. I've done graduate student ‘brown bag’ sessions where everyone gets in the room at one time for lunch, and we apply for everybody's ORCID iD. We get everyone’s Google Scholar profile up and have them spend 10 minutes thinking about what the heck they’re doing with social media to promote research. In short, we give academics an opportunity to just focus on impact for a few minutes at a time and get something done.”
Welzenbach concludes, “Our hope is if folks can knock out some of these steps to increase research impact, it will set them up to promote their work going forward, so that the maintenance of promotion areas is not such a big deal.”
I encourage other institutions to consider trying this model, as it is especially promising for increasing the participation of graduate students and faculty members in efforts to improve the impact of their research. Even when aware that research impact matters, faculty members frequently don’t want to take away time from unpublished work in progress as they seek to create more publications for their CVs. If not actively seeking a job, research promotion tasks can be easily put off.
Yet publicly sharing research, and connecting with future readers and collaborators, can frequently be the venue that actually increases publication and presentation opportunities. Thus, the combination of time-limited steps with clear directions can prompt faculty members to do something they ultimately want to do anyway.
Academics generally want more readers for their work and more influence, and their institutions benefit from both as well. Creating strategic opportunities to pay attention to research impact through focusing on either a single published article or research conducted over a number of years is essential for both current and future faculty members.