Impact should be included in promotion and tenure criteria

More sharing of impact will improve understanding of how it can be promoted and evaluated, says Peter Tufano

November 18, 2019
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As many have noted, a lot of academic research in the social sciences, while carefully done, lacks relevance. And while new editors of journals issue manifestos encouraging researchers to break out of their small, circular conversations and engage with government, business and civil society leaders, change is slow.

Editorial practices, tenure standards and social norms combine to discourage most academics from attempting the boldest work – and certainly from considering impact as part of their jobs. While some research has had great impact on practice, this sometimes occurs despite – rather than because of – standard academic procedure.

As someone who oversaw the tenure and promotion standards at one elite business school and who chairs the promotions process at my current institution, I strongly sympathise with these observations. And in the spirit of moving the discussion forward, I would like to share an experiment and a concrete proposal that begins with a simple premise: if we want to encourage relevant, timely research that has impact, we need first to unearth it. Then we need to begin to measure it, for we treasure what we measure.

Tenure and promotion packets sent out by universities for review routinely include instruction letters, statements by the candidate and a set of papers and/or books they have written. Impact, if mentioned at all, often comes as a footnote in a candidate’s statement, along the lines of: “Oh, and, by the way, the US Supreme Court cited my paper.” As an experiment, in a recent promotion round at Oxford’s Saïd Business School, we sent out novel additional evidence for a candidate for tenure.

In addition to supplying the customary materials, we asked the candidate to write a document providing evidence of the impact that their work had on practice, including testimonials linking it to subsequent changes. Reviewers were asked to opine on the statement as they would on an article.

The referees’ reaction was mixed. They seemed intrigued and impressed, but they claimed never to have been asked to review a document of this sort before, so didn’t know the standards to judge it by, and were generally confused. Nevertheless, our commitment to impact is such that we have now revised our promotion standards to allow candidates to offer evidence of their work’s impact as part of their review.

Allowing and encouraging candidates to include formal “impact evidence” in tenure review cases is within our gift. If it is voluntary, no candidate is made worse off. Yet if candidates see that practical impact is a viable component of a path to academic success, they will respond to these incentives.

Since journal editors are also reviewers, existing journals – or perhaps even new ones – may in time begin to devote pages specifically to the documentation of impact, broadening our understanding of the ways in which it occurs. We can also encourage researchers to expound on the impact of their work in the concluding section of standard papers, replacing the often highly standardised repetition of research conclusions. What was the path of diffusion for this innovation? In what ways did practice change as a result of this research?

Just as we have come to learn how excellent research is conducted through the sharing and reviewing of papers, more sharing of impact will promote a better understanding of how it can be promoted, allowing senior faculty and reviewers to develop the intellectual muscle to evaluate it rigorously.

In the UK, we already produce this type of evidence for the impact case studies submitted to the research excellence framework. The data are used to evaluate whole academic organisations, but the case studies represent the impact of research conducted by individual faculty members, so it would be a relatively small step to use a form of impact documentation to evaluate individuals, too.

As our tenure and promotion committees resume their important work this academic year, surely it is time to discuss how we evaluate our junior colleagues. In short order, we could break apart the monolith of traditional practice to promote a more multifaceted view of excellence that allows impact to shine.

Peter Tufano is Peter Moores dean of Saïd Business School at the University of Oxford.


Print headline: Give impact more impact

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Reader's comments (5)

It's remarkable how inapropriate the impact agenda is for most of the social sciences and humanities- indeed for research in general- and yet continues to be sanctified in articles like this. In one fell swoop the first sentence makes most of our research irrelevant. What rough pragmatism. We could easily do the same for what comes out of business schools, and perhaps should. This dean could do with reading Kant's Conflict of the Faculties for a start.
With friends like Peter Tufano, universities don't need enemies.
What then is 'relevant'? It's not the definition of science. And impact is absolute nonsense. What seems 'relevant' is often determined by presentist concerns, which in turn might have a present 'impact': so I guess in future, Mr Tufano will be happy to demonstrate his relevance by evidencing the contribution he has made to the national Brexit agenda? Have fun, but don't pretend that this should be relevant to promoting careers (or maybe it will in Unicornia?), or that it has anything at all to do with promoting research or knowledge.
If you want to encourage relevant, timely research that has impact, you need first to do it.
Excellent article. This is absolutely the right thing to do given that it forms an important part of the REF. If a university benefits from higher REF rankings that arise from this particular contribution, it is only fair that academics producing impactful research are rewarded for it. This should not mean however, that every piece of research in every discipline should have impact on practice and/or policy. I am sure Peter's point about relevance was made in the context relevance to practice and/or policy. It also should also not mean that impact should be the only criteria for promotions or that it be made mandatory for promotions. Where there is significant impact, it should be given due consideration and this I think is the thrust of this article. Academic promotions should not be a zero-sum game. Rewarding one person for their contributions should not affect another person's chances of being promoted. One should indeed take a dim view of any academic who would think that just because a piece of research does not have clearly identifiable relevance to current practice or policy, that it is irrelevant. Excellence is indeed multifaceted, academia would do well to accept this.