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Defining Social Impact

Last Updated on July 9, 2022, 9:44 am ET

I’m doing quite a bit of reading about social or societal impact connected to open science. The easiest starting point, and one that is not uncommon, is the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The SDGs are the clearest outline of the wicked problems facing humanity, and offer helpful hooks on which to hang our collective work.

But, we all know that societal impact is larger and more nuanced than any list could capture, and arguably some versions of societal impact may be intangible and ephemeral. As I trawl through the current research and thinking, my goal is less to boil down an agreed upon definition and more to cultivate an imagination for how to increase the permeability of the wall between the ivory tower and Main Street.

How Do Researchers Approach Societal Impact?

Lucky for me, Fecher and Hebing just released a study that is helping me form my ideas on this topic. They write, quoting Bornmann [paywalled]:

Three main strands of societal impact can be distinguished:

    • First, societal impact as a product (i.e., as an artifact that embodies scientific knowledge),
    • Second, societal impact as use (i.e., the adoption of academic knowledge by societal stakeholders), and
    • Third, societal impact as benefits (i.e., the effects of the use of research)

Extrapolating to my vantage point in research libraries—I believe our efforts in open/public access to the scholarly record qualify for #1 societal impact as product; the metrics (biblio- or alt-) game is attempting to capture some of #2 societal impact as use; and every campus communications office dreams of #3, that story where, in one example, a community or individual was changed for the better because of that paper in that journal being accidentally discovered by that staffer in that office, and policy being shaped. See the super cool radar chart below for a visual into some of their analysis.


Radar chart illustrating goals pursued by researchers in social sciences, humanities, and natural sciences when communicating with nonscientific audiences
Image source: Benedikt Fecher and Marcel Hebing, “How Do Researchers Approach Societal Impact?”


Towards Societal Impact through Open Research

Concurrently, I’ve reconnected with colleagues in the Netherlands, who have completed and are promoting a large-scale study examining societal impact through open research. The study, a partnership between Springer Nature and The Association of Universities in the Netherlands (VSNU), was broken into three projects, the third of which—Helping Researchers Maximise Societal Impact—is particularly interesting to me.


Intended research impact varies most by discipline
Towards Societal Impact: A Toolkit to Maximize the Reach of Your Research (Springer Nature, 2020)


The project surveyed over 9,000 researchers and found that “researchers’ interpretations of what constitutes societal impact are often closely tied to their discipline” and that societal impact is most important in India (84%) and Central/South America (77%), in social sciences (77%) and medicine (73%), with younger researchers (73%), and at smaller institutions (73%).” (N.B. All of these reported percentages are against the mean of 68%.)

Wading through the who, what, and why, the Springer/VSNU study highlights a theme I’m seeing more and more: the necessity of better or new forms of communication for research. Phrases like “non-academic impact,” “knowledge transfer,” “knowledge mobilization,” “knowledge valorization,” and “community engagement” are helpful here, but many of the examples in the study are well-trod ground—press releases, informational support about impact, commercialization, social media, etc.

Open Scholarly Publishing and Knowledge Mobilization: Combining Two Initiatives to Achieve Social Impact

Tying this all back to open research, Bayley, Phipps, Roche, and Lodge, braid open publishing (from a capital “P” Publisher perspective), knowledge mobilization, and social impact in their recent paper, “Open Scholarly Publishing and Knowledge Mobilization: Combining Two Initiatives to Achieve Social Impact.” They write that “there is a timeliness at looking how to harness this growing drive to ‘open’ to strengthen pathways to impact.” Working through their concept of impact literacy, they (intentionally or not) poke right in the eye of open access advocacy by pointing out that access is not use is not impact:

Open access may be a welcome shift in knowledge communication, but it is not in itself a sufficient mechanism to drive research impact. Increased accessibility offers the possibility of—and an ethical commitment to—the public use of research, but for impact, knowledge mobilization must be active. That is, it is not enough to simply make research available, as this relies solely on public energies to find it and translate its utility. Instead, availability should be considered the first necessary step for impact, demanding, then, more connected thinking about how to elevate this to use.

They conclude by laying out possible actions for academic institutions, including addressing the incentives/validation challenge for anything not a “paper” or “book.” They also encourage Publishers to pursue collaborative processes toward knowledge mobilization with researchers, research managers, and librarians.

Most intriguing for my purposes was the references to their “Institutional Healthcheck Workbook to support organizations in self-assessing their readiness for impact.” Thinking back again to my stakeholder place in this sector, Librarian at a Research Library, I wonder how research libraries might respond to the questions in the health check categories (as summarized in table 2 of “Open Scholarly Publishing and Knowledge Mobilization: Combining Two Initiatives to Achieve Social Impact“).

  1. Commitment: Is the organization committed to impact (e.g., strategy, systems, staff)?
  2. Clarity: Do academic and non-academic staff understand impact, expectations, roles?
  3. Connectivity: Do the organizational units work together, connect to strategy, act cohesively?
  4. Co-production: Is there advice, training, support to develop skills for impact?
  5. Competencies: What is the extent and quality of engagement with non-academic stakeholders?

The Role of Libraries in Contributing to Impact

Of these three studies about the increasing focus on societal impact of research, two mention libraries offhandedly. One frustrating takeaway from my previous research on open science policy and infrastructure also underlined that libraries are not often directly acknowledged or thought of as primary stakeholders in the contemporary experiment of research transformation, despite the clear roles we often and regularly play. Taking that as a challenge then, I’d like to propose three things:

  1. A beginning idea for increasing the visibility of libraries
  2. A concept for a role libraries can/should play in accelerating the social impact of research through our “open” initiatives
  3. A really wild landscape shifting organizational redesign that might facilitate #1 and #2

1. Increase the visibility of libraries in social impact of research by focusing on disciplinary evolution

I know, I know, we can’t. Libraries serve our whole campus, and our campuses are made of every discipline. But, we know that researchers feel more affiliation to their field or discipline than the specific organization they are employed by (see every challenge for institutional repository growth ever). The example in my head is EarthArxiv, powered by our friends at California Digital Library. I’m not necessarily suggesting that Clemson Libraries should only support anthropologists or Montana State become the open education headquarters for industrial engineers.

But, what if, as we talk about sustainable scholarship and investing in open, we (through coalitions, collaboratives, initiatives, associations) focused people, time, and money on propping up open/public impact programs for specific disciplines. The field of education research is interested in cultivating an open strategy? The Academic Libraries of Indiana will coordinate a team of scholcomm experts to lend a hand. Life sciences ready to double down on public impact of health research? The Triangle Research Libraries Network is perfectly poised. I also know that this idea would be a significant diversion from the mission of regional library cooperatives…just spitballing ideas here. The point I hope I’m making is that if, for example, engineers of various stripes heard that NC State Libraries was a key supporter of EngrXiv, our percent stake as stakeholders in the advancement of open research would be more readily evident.

2. Evolve from scholarly communication to communicated scholarship

We (libraries) have defined scholarly communication for almost 20 years as the system through which research is disseminated through the scholarly community. Much of our effort in open access, and then open data, and then open education, and maybe next open source software, has attempted to affect that system, to some success and through lots of teeth-gritting. What if, again, just cultivating some imagination here, some of that grit started to be applied toward the research communication space. If scholarly communication is (still) primarily about “journals” and “books” and research data, it may be time to use a new phrase for the other things we produce, develop, put on, and make.

The practice I’m dubbing communicated scholarship won’t sound new to anyone working in research libraries. We already devote lots of support, time, and perpetual motion to public programs and digital projects. What I’d like to connect is that…

  • if our researchers are excited about and being asked to illustrate societal impact, and
  • if they need to get credit for the unique and boutique stuff we do with them, and
  • if the library understands its role in the quickly shrinking gap between a flood of pre-prints and a vaccination, and
  • if a library has been hiring creative, innovative, digi/virtual, integrated/engaged type folks,

…then, there is an opportunity to invest in communication of research results in non-academic, inclusive, welcoming, and community-valued modes. It’s great that this article is open access and the data are in ICPSR, now let’s collaborate with the research group to co-design a workflow to integrate their data into Wikidata.

Communicated scholarship, in my working definition, is a process for modulating, re-presenting, and then amplifying academic knowledge in non-academic modes.

I imagine this idea in the middle of a Venn diagram between public scholarship, scientific communication, and scholarly communications. Under a communicated scholarship model the library is not a publisher, bur rather a producer and promoter. What would it look like if part of a library’s work in accelerating the societal impact of research was translation and interpretation, with all the knowledge we’ve gained from open research and digital scholarship behind it? In my mind, a reconceptualization like this could increase the flow of knowledge across Fecher and Hebing’s categories of impact as product, use, and benefits.

3. Establish a research communications initiative situated between the library, the office of research, and the university communications unit

Our friends Fecher and Hebing hint at this idea, probably without meaning how I am taking it. They write in conclusion, “…considering the discontent with institutional communication departments, it might be worthwhile to implement decentralized support structures on the mesolevel of research organizations.” We’ve already begun to see university communications partner and often cross-hire with offices of research, if the two universities I’ve worked at are any indication. There are similar partnerships in the research infrastructure space connecting libraries with central IT.

I’ve tracked the research library field increasingly calling for connections with offices of research since our rush to claim data management services in the wake of Holdron’s public access memo, culminating in Ithaka’s great report last year. As we coalesce around major social challenges like climate change and a global pandemic, and every corner of the internet (at least that which is revealed to me by The All-Seeing Algorithms) is worrying about how to address mis/disinformation and ensure rapid and comprehensible communication of research to a confused and searching public, it doesn’t seem too farfetched to suggest that such a tripartite connection could be a good idea on campus. Heck, I’ll even throw in Publishers, since they so kindly took down the force fields when we needed it most last year.

The underlayment throughout these studies, and yet unclear in my three ideas, is how will we actually really create an open research system that is not just welcoming to The Public but has clear and beneficial opportunities for their involvement at the beginning, through the middle, and on to the conclusion. Fecher and Hebing hope for a dialogic relationship between science and society. The VSNU and Springer/Nature promote co-creation of research agendas with communities. Bayley, Phipps, Roche, and Lodge see opportunity for systemic tweaks that lean toward a more open publishing cycle.

Maybe, the most societal impact I can actually effect is concerning myself with my public, and fighting to make sure they have access, can use, and receive benefit from the 40 hours a week I spend emailing brilliant folks about putting their life’s work online for free.

Editor’s note: This post was originally published on Medium on August 18, 2021. The author, Micah Vandegrift, is an ARL visiting program officer designing and delivering a pilot experience—Accelerating the Social Impact of Research (ASIR)—for a cohort of nine ARL member libraries advancing open research practices at their institutions.