How do do impactful research?

Provides advice on impactful research focusing on research passion, societal impact, and the four Cs of citation

My paper The persistent myth of high expatriate failure rates was first-ranked in the WAIB top-20 on research in global careers. I was therefore interviewed by Saba Colakoglu and Ha Nguyen, who came up with some great questions. This blogpost covers their last question which dealt with how to do impactful research.

What's your advice to junior scholars on impactful research?

I think there are a few things I can recommend. First, research topics that are close to your heart. Second, understand that there are many different ways that your research can have an impact. Third, understand that even if you focus only on academic impact - typically measured as citations - there are many things you can do ethically to improve your citations.

Follow your passion

First, do what you are passionate about, follow your heart, and focus on topics and areas where you have unique skills. Most of the research I review for journals these days is cookie-cutter research; it is methodologically skilled, but utterly boring. So don’t just do what everyone else does. Dare to be different and critical. I have discussed this extensively in the presentation I did in the IHRM seminar series I mentioned before.

The presentation was entitled “Dare to be Different. Why (IHRM) Research needs to change” and I listed six areas in which I think IHRM research - and research in general - needs to change. But of course, it is quite easy to just say “Dare to be different”. So, I also spent part of this presentation to talk about how to do this in practice. It is only a 7-minute video, so it might be worth a look for junior academics.

Impact can mean many things

Second, Impact isn’t one thing, it is many things (see also the table below). The first area is academic impact, this refers to implications of our research for other researchers and is generally measured by citations. But we should not forget that we all have a tremendous impact on our students. In any good university, research will feed into the classroom and students will benefit from research-led teaching. If you are interested in finding out whether your work is used in the classroom, I can recommend having a look at Open Syllabus Explorer. For instance, the article I wrote on how poor academic referencing impacts on our credibility as scholars isn’t cited that much, but I know it is used in many doctoral studies programmes.

So, these types of impact are linked to two key functions of a university: research and teaching. But there is also a third function: external engagement. This is the kind of impact that is measured in the UK national research evaluation. It is defined as an effect on, change or benefit to the economy, society, culture, public policy or services, health, the environment, or quality of life, beyond academia. This captures impact on practice, is our research used in industry? But it also refers to how our research may influence public policy. More broadly, it refers to impact for society. As social scientists we do not necessarily save lives as Life Scientists may do, but we can improve people’s lives.

How to improve your citation impact?

Third, focusing purely on citation impact, there are a lot of things you can do ethically to improve the chances of your work being cited. Things that are intrinsically important in academic publishing and in academic careers in general. So, I’m not saying you should do these things just to get cited. That's a very instrumental approach that I would not encourage. I have come up with the four C’s of getting cited. I have written up a white paper on this on my website that you can find easily and have also recently recorded a video on this. In brief I distinguish.

  • Competence: Impact starts with competence: delivering high-quality work. Although there are always exceptions, in general shoddy work will attract few citations and high-quality meaningful work is more likely to be cited.
  • Collaboration: Co-authors can improve the quality of a publication by complementary skills, critical reading and creating more motivation to finish. Through their own network they will also increase the chances of your work being cited.
  • Care: Care for your academic reputation, never engage in questionable practices, and care for other academics. Building high quality networks based on trust and reciprocity (rather than instrumentality) helps the dissemination of your research.
  • Communication: Finally, ensure that your work reaches the widest possible audience. Much of the white paper is devoted to how you can use both digital and face-to-face interactions to achieve this.

As part of the same presentation series, I have also covered how to use Social Media as an academic and have provided a clear 7-step process to ensure your paper gets the best possible chance to achieve the impact it deserves.

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