Impact and the REF – and the role of social media for economic and social impact

26 March 2014 By Northern Lights

Impact and the REF – and the role of social media for economic and social impact image

What is academic research for?  As a REF manager recently said “This is not a question that academics have had to consider in the past.  Measuring impact is a completely new concept.”

The rules of how the UK government funds research have changed.  The most money has always gone to top-ranked researchers, but as the Research Assessment Exercise has changed to the Research Excellence Framework (REF), so has the way ‘top-ranked’ is now measured.

1.       Criteria for assessing reach and significance

Image courtesy of renjith krishnan /

Image courtesy of renjith krishnan /

The REF criteria for assessing impacts are ‘reach’ and ‘significance’ and now account for 20% of the scores for a research case study and expected to be 30% in the future. This is what REF itself says about impact assessment

  • In assessing the impact described within a case study, the panel will form an overall view about its ‘reach and significance’ taken as a whole, rather than assess ‘reach and significance’ separately
  • In assessing the impact template (REF3a) the panel will consider the extent to which the unit’s approach described in the template is conducive to achieving impacts of ‘reach and significance’

2.       How can social media increase reach and significance?

I recently ran a Training Gateway training day for universities on developing a social media strategy – more in this blog about the discussions and how to do this.

For a few, REF impact was a big focus and they instinctively felt that social media has a significant role – but what and how?  Of course as soon as anyone in social media hears the words ‘reach’ and ‘significance’, you just know there has to be a place for it to increase impact.

It is interesting that years ago, I was asked to run a series of workshops for the Higher Education Academy to help academics disseminate their research.  It was a frustrating exercise because it was like trying to design a PR campaign without having done the initial research and planning.  An example was some great research to help lecturers be more effective with dyslexic learners.  If they had built an initial community of lecturers across the country to take part in the research, then the dissemination at the end would have been a doddle.

And this is where social media can perhaps play the biggest part in REF impact.  Helping to design and shape research from the start and building a community – so that by the end of the research, ‘reach’ and ‘significance’ are no-brainers.

3.       The role of social media for REF impact

So here is how we think social media can be used to for REF impact

  • Use social media to find and link with a community relevant to your research.  Taking the dyslexia example, I just did a LinkedIn search for people who might be interested.  We don’t work in this world at all, but really interesting names come up. You could link with these and ask them questions, test out how you are planning the research

Dyslexia on LinkedIn for REF
















  • Set up a LinkedIn group – these can be closed (you approve those who are members and can keep conversations relatively confidential) or open to anyone.   Continuing the dyslexia theme, there are 95 LinkedIn groups on this topic alone.  So you could also join these and ask questions, look at the discussions and questions people are posting and get a feel for issues – and ask people to help in the research

Dyslexia groups






















  • A quick search for #dyslexia on Twitter shows who is interested in and tweeting about this – and professional relationships can be built on Twitter in minutes as well as dissemination of requests or information
  • If you take just the first four Twitter names mentioned above, look at the reach and think of the power of demonstrating this for the REF

@lizditz                                               5,642 followers

@thecoffeeKlatch                           47.3K followers

@DDNC13                                           799 followers

@Dyslexic_Kids                               1,813 followers

So one retweet (RT) alone from these four would mean you could be reaching 55, 554 people.  Of course it isn’t quite that simple – but the power of these networks is enormous

  • Like most people in social media, we believe a quality blog should be at the heart of your activities.  Set one up and understand keywords and how to write to be engaging – and be found on Google (more tips in our ebook on how to write top-ranked blogs – written for academics and businesses).

You can write your own blog, tweet and get people to give you feedback and ideas on the blog – or go out to bloggers in your area and comment on what they are doing, become known as an expert (without becoming known as a stalker!).  The Dyslexia Action blog below would be a good example of where to engage and build a relationship.

Dyslexia action blogWith all this, we haven’t even touched Facebook, Pinterest, Tumblr or other social media platforms. But even keeping it simple, you can see how social media can help to shape research, build communities, generate significance – and have enormous reach.

Is there anything critical here that we’ve missed about the role of social media for REF impact?

Author Image

Written by Northern Lights

1 Comment

  • The biggest obstacle for many I suspect is first being convinced that social media can be useful (and this blog helps that point) and then having (or making) the time to get started – and to decide which tools to use. Because there are so many different possibilities at the moment it could be a case of all or nothing – with nothing being the option of choice. Universities need to work out how they can support colleagues to do this!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *