Distribution and Legacies: Engagement and Impact

Many of us are unaware of the finer distinctions between Engagement and Impact, but Ed Vollans believes that understanding the two could help us think about how our work fits into a wider landscape…

For scholars in the UK (and elsewhere) the increasing need for ‘Engagement’ and ‘Impact’ in applications and assessment is of concern. From a Humanities and Early Career perspective, it can seem like this system of funding that ensures taxpayer benefit is skewed against many of the approaches and topics intrinsic to our work.

In this post, I want to break down the issues of both Engagement and Impact as two distinct forms, overlapping but intrinsically linked: outlining both in simple terms, while pointing towards pathways, tool kits and other useful sources of information.

Despite a tendency to talk about Engagement and Impact together, Engagement logically comes first. Essentially, it’s getting people talking about and interacting with your chosen topic. This can be via blog posts, press articles, screenings, public events and so on. The key thing here is setting up a system to track it: metrics, analytics, ticket sales – all of these can be used to demonstrate the ‘reach’ of your work.

How far out of your brain has your research travelled, and more importantly, to whom? Academic conferences are great, but that audience is already in your field (however broadly) because they are already attending the same event as you. The spread of your Engagement, in this case then, is limited as these folks are likely to read your work anyway. Developing a strategy of outreach to deliver your work to as wide an audience as possible, and a strategy of tracking the ‘reach’ of your work (e.g. YouTube video views, Google Analytics etc.) help to quantify your audience. However, retweets, downloads and views are only part of getting your work embedded in the wider domain as the quality of the Engagement mutates into Impact.

I was once asked to define Impact, and a former colleague leaned over and said: “it’s the ‘What have you done and why should we care?’ Factor.” Impact is what happens after you’ve done the research (or at least have something to share). It’s essentially the wider change after your engaging conversation. Now let’s be clear, certain subjects are going to have more of a chance to achieve this (STEM, anyone?), but whatever the topic this is for certain: Impact can’t exist if you don’t track it!

Getting your research in the public domain is great, but generating uptake or mid-to-long term change is a key factor. Think about your work in relation to policy and practice – if lots of people have been talking about your work, great. But if they don’t do anything with it, you’re stuck. In part, all Impact is Engagement, but the splitting of these two categories into different elements weakens your argument; if your central purpose is to change wider discourse, for example, it’s difficult to distinguish between the two. Tracking a discussion outside your own aca-circle as it mutates is the tricky element here, and without forward planning, you’re likely to lose track. This is especially tricky with policy and broader public discourse where, for example, government or ministers may be influenced by your work, but won’t directly cite you (or even notify you). Thus, in order to track Impact, you have to plan for it. Follow up with your audience, make connections with your readers – develop and maintain relationships based on your initial work if you can, build on the exchange of knowledge. Has the course you’ve designed fed into the local economy or a specific company? Impact. Has your work changed the way a museum presents a topic or the way it restored an artefact? Impact. And this can only come about through Engagement with people previously unaware of the implications of your work. So we can, in fact, think of Impact as on-going Engagement, the up-take of knowledge into (please, please forgive me) ‘the real world’.

You can learn more about Engagement from the National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement. If you want to spend more time considering Impact then check the REF Impact Case Studies, as well as the overview and toolkit provided by the Economic and Social Research Council. While this blog post can’t be a substitute for sitting down with your institution’s dedicated team, it is hopefully a starting point. Careful planning and consideration could help you position your work and lead to much bigger projects and opportunities.


Have you considered the potential of your research when it comes to Engagement or Impact? We want to hear from you! Tweet us at @ResearchEx, email us at libraryblogs@warwick.ac.uk, or leave a comment below.


Dr Ed Vollans is an Early Career colleague, currently based at Bournemouth University. His research considers the role of promotional media in the entertainment industries, of which more information can be found on the Watching the Trailer Project. He is a former media industry journalist and has previously worked for a number of UK Universities and institutions including the Economic and Social Research Council working specifically with Impact and Engagement. He also sits on the editorial board of KOME journal, the steering committee for Media Mutations, and recently worked with colleagues to edit a forthcoming special issue of Kinephanos exploring games promotion.


Image: steelwool-dark-firespin-spiral-art-458840 / 463259 / CC0 1.0

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