'Impact' defined: profits for publishers or advice for Sky

'Barrel scraped' as funders strive to delineate REF measure in the arts. Melanie Newman reports

February 4, 2010

Income for publishers counts as an economic impact of research, according to official guidance circulated in the sector.

The interpretation of what constitutes impact is cited in a document from the Higher Education Funding Council for England and reiterated in a set of guidelines published by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

It has led to claims that the bodies are "scraping the barrel" as they attempt to define the wider impact of academic work.

Under plans for the forthcoming research excellence framework, up to 25 per cent of departmental scores will be based on the impact of research on the economy or society.

The REF will replace the research assessment exercise as the means for distributing £1.5 billion in quality-related research income in England.

The funding council's REF Pathways to Impact document, which has been given to universities taking part in a pilot project on measuring impact, uses the work of Leon Litvack, reader in English at Queen's University Belfast, and an expert on Charles Dickens, as an example of the impact of research in literature.

Dr Litvack's new edition of Our Mutual Friend is expected to be a "new cultural experience for readers" and to bring "financial benefits", according to Hefce.

The funding council does not state who will profit, but an explanation is offered by an AHRC report, Examples of Economic Impact from AHRC-funded projects.

The newly edited text of Dickens' final completed novel will create "financial benefits for publishers", the AHRC says.

Writing in the Oxford University Gazette, Robin Briggs, senior research fellow in modern history at the University of Oxford, says: "All those among us who have written books that sold reasonably well can clearly breathe again, because we can deluge the REF panels with royalty statements (to demonstrate impact)."

He adds: "Since several perfectly respectable editions of Our Mutual Friend are already available to the general reader, the first claim about new cultural experiences is baffling."

Both the Hefce and AHRC documents also refer to Dr Litvack's contribution to a 2005 exhibition at The Charles Dickens Museum in London, which they say resulted in "financial benefits for the museum".

While this may sound worthy, Mr Briggs argues that it has worrying implications.

Since many major museums do not charge entrance fees, significant contributions by academics elsewhere "will not be able to claim economic impact".

Finally, the AHRC document lists Dr Litvack as having acted as a consultant on Dickens for broadcasters Sky and ITV.

According to Hefce, the expected impact of this advice is the "more accurate representation of Dickens on TV".

"By now one might think that the sound of an empty barrel being scraped had become almost deafening," Mr Briggs writes.

melanie.newman@tsleducation.com.

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