REF Impact case studies: 8 top tips

Shows how Stephen Kemp's top-8 tips for impact case studies are applicable to other areas of academia, such as funding, publishing, promotion

Middlesex University Business School was top-ranked in the 2021REF for research impact and impact remains very high on the agenda in our Faculty of Business & Law. We therefore organise regular Impact Case Study days.

At one of these days, Stephen Kemp presented his eight top tips for impact. Stephen is an advisor on research funding and impact. He offers services at a range of levels. For individual academics he provides one-to-one support; for groups of academics he offers training and facilitation; and for departments/institutions he designs and delivers schemes and strategies to improve institutional performance.

Stephen kindly agreed to write up his eight top tips, which are listed below. During his presentation, it immediately struck me that most of these tips are equally applicable to other areas of academia, such as funding applications, publishing articles, and promotion applications. Hence, each tip is followed by my own reflections on this.

1. Foster links with a handful of key external partners

Impact is about how your research makes a difference, especially beyond academia. Usually this means someone using or interacting with research in some way and this often involves some connection between you and those research users - and it's a two-way connection.

They may be able to use the research but they may also be able to inform and enrich it, for example in helping to justify a research proposal, in supplying data that improves your research quality or in evaluating the work so you can see the difference it made and what further research is needed.

This makes it sound like you need to be a networking superhero and know all the relevant connections, but this is not so. A small number of key connections is all that's needed and these link you into wider networks. Ask yourself: Who are those key partners?

Anne-Wil: focus is crucial

Focusing on a limited number of key partners is crucial in several other areas of academic life, such as publishing and applying for funding, too. Granted, in some disciplines such as astrophysics and many of the Life Sciences huge collaborations might be the norm.

Moreover, when doing cross-cultural research, you may also end up coordinating big teams that are collecting data in many countries. I did for some of my studies in International Business (see Language effects in international mail surveys and What if fully agree doesn't mean the same thing across cultures?).

However, most research projects, papers, and funding applications in the Social Sciences will only involve a few key research collaborators. If you engage in large collaborative projects much of your energy will be spent on keeping the team together, leaving you with too little time for the actual research.

2. The impact case study should focus on the impact

It sounds obvious but, as one REF assessor commented, "On average case studies spent too much of the page count explaining the research." REF impact case studies generated for the REF impact assessment are rated on the basis of their impact. The research is only really there as qualifying information - if you're making it all (or mainly) about the research then you're missing the point.  

Anne-Wil: again, focus is crucial

This tip is probably specifc for REF impact case studies, which need to discuss the underlying research, but focus squarely on its impact. However, we can interpret this a bit more broadly as a choice between breadth and depth.

One of the biggest mistakes that many junior academics make is a lack of focus in their papers, funding applications, and promotion applications. They go on too many side-tracks and overwhelm the reader with irrelevant information. Although breadth can be important in some areas, most academic processes favour depth over breadth. 

3. Organise the impact into 3(-ish) chunks

The best way to present the impact is to arrange it in meaningful chunks. In this way, assessors can quickly get an idea of the scope and range of the case study, see what impact you are claiming and what information you have to back it up. We know from classical rhetoric and more recent psychology that delivering information in three pieces is a good way for the reader/listener to assimilate it.

Three may or may not feel right once it's written down so you can tweak it from there but it's a great place to start. Organising the information in this way is good not only for assessors, but for you at the formative stage. You can see if the scope and flow feels right. You can see if you're trying to cover too much or if there are gaps. 

Anne-Wil: decide what your big contributions are

This not only means that you need to focus (see #2), but also that you might need to aggregate smaller contributions to one bigger contribution.This is true for both funding applications and papers, but it is even more important for promotion applications. Your application should be an argued and coherent case, not a pile of puzzle pieces. 

Your promotion panel can only see the full picture appearing when all of the puzzle pieces are in place. This means that you need to aggregate your evidence to meaningful categories. Don’t just give the promotion panel the evidence, tell them what this is evidence of. You cannot rely on the reader to make sense of a long list of seemingly unrelated information.

4. Ask “so what?”

It may sound harsh but often the only way to understand the difference you're making is to ask, "so what?" Say you've developed new insights on a social challenge - so what?

Maybe these are useful to practitioners working with real people experiencing that challenge - so what? You work with those practitioners to develop a new intervention - so what? The intervention makes a difference to people experiencing the challenge and improves their outcomes - so what? The government takes note of the challenge and adopts it as a national approach - so what?

And so on... Whether you're looking back while writing an impact case study or looking forward in planning toward some target outcome, this approach can help you get past your initial view of the impact.

Anne-Wil: Focus on the why and how, not the what

The "so what" question applies equally in funding applications and papers. Why and how is your funding project going to make a difference? (see also step #7 of my How to write successful funding applications?) Why and how are your paper's findings changing the way we see things in the discipline? (see also: Your introduction: first impressions count! [5/8]).

Again though, this is even more important in promotion applications where you need to be able to discard the "what ifs" and answer the "so what" question clearly. I discuss this in detail in Writing promotion applications (4): Focus on impact

5. Set the context

The difference your research makes can only be expressed relative to some baseline. Narrative case studies are used in the REF impact assessment precisely because they enable researchers to express their impact in whatever terms, and against whatever context, are required to describe that impact. Without context, assessors may be able to see the bare fact that some impact has occurred but they will not be able to judge the reach or significance of that impact. 

Anne-Wil: context is crucial

Context is crucial for any aspect of your academic career. Writing your paper's introduction? Before arguing your topics's importance, you will need to start providing the context (see Your introduction: first impressions count! [5/8]).

Want your funding application to be successful? Before arguing why research on your topic is important, you will need to start by providing the context (see How to write successful funding applications?).

Writing your promotion application? Your promotion panel will more easily appreciate your contributions if you craft your career narrative and provide a coherent statement of what you see as the core of your academic identity (see Academic promotion tips (6) - Craft your career narrative).

6. You have to start somewhere…

It is tempting to put off writing an impact case study until close to the REF submission date. After all, you don't know the full extent of the impact until then, right? Actually, it's better to get down as much as you can earlier on in the process. That way you can see what you've achieved so far and map out where else the impact could go and what evidence you need to back it up. It becomes a formative assessment.

Start writing on the proper template when it is available. This will immediately make it feel "real" and manageable rather than something daunting that's hanging over you. You will be able to see past the barrier of having to write a case study and instead focus on how to take it forward. 

Anne-Wil: start early!

Any academic output - whether impact case study, funding application, paper, or promotion application - will be better if you give yourself time to iteratively improve it. So start early. This constituted the first four tips of my: How to write successful funding applications?, the second P (Practice) of my four P's of publishing, and the first of four tips in my series on Writing promotion applications.

In fact, I would argue that preparation for your promotion starts the very day that you start your academic career. In your application you will need to evidence your performance in research, in teaching, in external engagement, in leadership, in collegiality, and in any other aspects that your university requires. Collecting this evidence throughout your career makes it much easier to write up your application.

7. Consider your audience

Impact case studies are read by a particular audience - the REF Unit of Assessment panel. Later on in the REF cycle you will be able to find the names of those on the panel so you will be able to get a very clear idea of your audience. Assume they know about the research area at a broad disciplinary level and don't make it too technical for them.

Remember they have a lot to read and assimilate - give them what they are looking for, don't make them dig for it. Again, the assessor's voice is important here, "I was punch drunk by the end. I welcomed the documents that made it easy for me." 

Anne-Wil: Write for your audience

Again, any academic output -  whether impact case study, funding application, paper, or promotion application - will be received better if you write for your audience. I have discussed this in detail in Who do you want to talk to? Targeting journals [2/8], where I explain that journals are communities and that you need to acknowledge your conservation partners.

I also allude to it in my How to write successful funding applications? when I explain your application needs to carefully address the funding call. However, writing for your audience is also crucial for promotion applications: Writing promotion applications: Write for the reader. Your promotion panel are not mindreaders!

8. Read other impact case studies

There is no need to reinvent the wheel. After REF2014 and REF2021 we have two databases containing over 13,000 impact case studies. Among these you are very likely to find examples close to your research area or your impact type. You can use these to understand how other researchers have described and evidenced their impact. You may get ideas on routes to impact to inform your plans. You may even get some insight on particular organisations that are interested in using research.

The only snag is that scores are not attached to individual case studies, however in some cases we can infer case studies' scores. Here is a list of REF2021 case studies that we know scored the top score, 4*, though these don't appear in all Units of Assessment. And here's a list of the top 5 highest scoring REF2021 impact submissions in every Unit of Assessment.

Anne-Wil: Learn by example

Finally, any academic output -  whether impact case study, funding application, paper, or promotion application - can be improved by looking at successful examples. In the writing boot-camp I run for Middlesex University every year (see: Middlesex university staff development: Boot-camp #8), I ask academics to find three representative and recent articles in the journal they are targeting. You can use these as model articles for your article preparation process (see: Who do you want to talk to? Targeting journals [2/8]).

Learning by example from funding applications is a little bit harder as applications tend to quite specific to the funding call. However, you can learn from general lessions as expressed in point #7 in How to write successful funding applications?How to prepare a large-scale ESRC funding application?, and The art of writing grants: lessons from reviewing and assessing grant proposals.

Likewise, every promotion application is unique. However, this doesn't mean you cannot learn from how others have done this. The first two tips in this post are based on that: Academic promotion tips (2) - Treat your application as a journal submission as is my book on the topic: Writing Effective Promotion Applications.

Related books

My book series Crafting your career in academia launched in August 2022 with a book on Writing Effective Promotion Applications. The series is a collection of short guides dealing with various aspects of working in academia. It is based on my popular blog.

Aug 2022:

Nov 2022:

Feb 2023:

May 2023:

August 2023:


Related workshops

NWO Impact - Online workshops provides a series of three workshops (see below) to provide an introduction to impact thinking. Although some elements will be specific to the Dutch context, most of the lessons from these workshops are generic. Note: some slides are in Dutch, but commentary is in English.

  • The Impact Outlook approach is intended for research that is primarily aimed at scientific impact or where the intended societal impact and the route towards it are insufficiently clear or concrete. NWO encourages researchers to think about opportunities for societal impact and to discover and develop them.

  • The Impact Plan approach is useful for research in which a societal issue is central. NWO asks researchers, together with partners, to develop a strategy for their proposal that specifically increases the chance of the research having societal impact.

  • The Impact Focus approach starts with a scientific result and an idea for a specific practical application. The central question is: what is needed to make this result of value in practice?

Related blogposts

Related video

On 25 June 2021, the Business Ethics, CSR and Governance Research Cluster, based at Middlesex University Business School, organised a panel discussion event that focused on the opportunities and barriers of academics making a real difference with their research for individuals, organisations and wider society.