Tell your story clearly, and consider getting a little help if needed

The REF’s impact case studies present myriad challenges. Seeking an outside view might be no bad thing, argues Neil Robinson

January 10, 2013

Source: Paul Bateman

One of the cruellest ironies of the impact agenda is that a process that supposedly has good communication and accessibility at its core engenders so much confusion and bewilderment. How can it be that the most resolute efforts to ensure that academic research is understood, taken up and used for the widest possible benefit are ultimately encapsulated in a jumble of ambiguity, imprecision, hyperbole and understatement?

Welcome to the curious world of the research excellence framework case study, where triumphs are needlessly portrayed as trivialities, paradigm shifts can appear suspiciously commonplace and time is warped to an extent that would very likely make Einstein weep.

Anybody who has had a hand in producing even one impact case study will be painfully aware of the myriad challenges they present. Much of the uncertainty is rooted in the REF team’s oft-derided guidelines, which, depending on one’s mindset, are either agreeably flexible or indistinct to the point of exasperation.

From there, doubt is transmitted inexorably to academic units, which might consequently embark on the crucial task of demonstrating their work’s value with a self-defeating mixture of indecision and resentment.

As specialist consultants who have helped numerous units hone their case studies, my colleagues and I have seen at first hand just how taxing many academics find the impact case study template. The most salient problem is that the majority of academics are accustomed to writing for their peers: they have seldom been confronted by the necessity to explain themselves in the accepted sense or to justify their endeavours in the broadest terms.

Many case studies require a good deal more than a spot of glorified sub-editing. Crafting a good case study involves digging deeper. It is about recognising that “I held a workshop for 100 policymakers” is not much better than “I held a workshop for 50 policymakers” and that in either scenario the desired level of detail is attained only when one can say which of those policymakers used what they learned, how they used it and how it benefited their organisations and stakeholders.

Other common problems stem from undue humility or, conversely, immodesty that smacks of pressure and misplaced desperation.

The REF was intended to reduce the bureaucratic burden imposed by its equally unloved predecessor, the research assessment exercise, yet many say that the new “impact” element means that the administrative load, if anything, has increased. Many institutions struggle to devote the additional quality of resource required to deal with both case-study preparation and the longer-term need to communicate impact to best effect.

In some quarters, approaching consultants for help raises not just questions but hackles. Critics suggest that it amounts to the “marketing” of research, an idea uncomfortably close to Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s predicted slide into intellectual “barbarism”. In reality, however, it is often true that only an external consultant has the experience and perspective to see the wood for the trees.

It is about applying such official guidance as is available and exploiting the elements of the rules that are weak or badly conceived to the university’s advantage. It is about solving the enduring puzzle of precisely what should go in section two (the underpinning research) and what should go in section four (the impact). It is about reassuring professors who teach 19th-century philosophy to lifelong learners that they are not competing against professors who cure cancer.

It is about appreciating that the difference between a three-star submission and a four-star submission could lie not in improving the extant material but in creating further impact. It is about removing superfluous complexity and telling good stories.

It is also about instilling confidence, optimism and a “can-do” mentality. Even the most despairing academics can be heartened to hear that they are not alone in their REF-related travails. Even the most bemused research authors can derive succour from talking to someone who not only expresses faith in an apparently troubled case study but is ready and able to effect the requisite transformation.

As for the cost of employing a consultant, it comes down to the fundamental issue of investment versus return. A university that pays for consultancy now, even if its outlay runs to tens of thousands of pounds, is acting in the reasonable belief that its prescience will help to maximise the chances of future rises in funding and reputation. For some institutions, this could be money very well spent.

All things considered, a significant measure of sympathy should be extended to anybody involved in preparing impact case studies. The greatest sympathy of all, however, is to be reserved for those condemned to face it without every assistance an institution can muster.

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