The complexity of higher education research impact: exploring the real-world influences of research from the perspective of researchers in a collaborative multidisciplinary research program

PhD Thesis


Doyle, Joanne. 2017. The complexity of higher education research impact: exploring the real-world influences of research from the perspective of researchers in a collaborative multidisciplinary research program. PhD Thesis Doctor of Philosophy. University of Southern Queensland. https://doi.org/10.26192/5c089cc17a8ca
Title

The complexity of higher education research impact: exploring the real-world influences of research from the perspective of researchers in a collaborative multidisciplinary research program

TypePhD Thesis
Authors
AuthorDoyle, Joanne
SupervisorCuthill, Michael
Riddle, Stewart
Institution of OriginUniversity of Southern Queensland
Qualification NameDoctor of Philosophy
Number of Pages289
Year2017
Digital Object Identifier (DOI)https://doi.org/10.26192/5c089cc17a8ca
Abstract

The issue of impact in relation to higher education research has received increasing attention since the 1960s. Governments, funding agencies and research stakeholders, including the general public, are seeking evidence that publicly-funded research is delivering real-world advantages in terms of economic, social, cultural and environmental benefit. A focus on impact has increased the pressure on researchers and research institutions to demonstrate how research achieves impact beyond scholarly contributions. However, the way in which research impacts society is not well understood.

The aim of this research is to enhance understanding about how higher education research influences society by exploring the phenomenon of research impact. The study addresses the research question: How do researchers involved in a collaborative multidisciplinary research program perceive the real-world impact of their research? Real-world impact is understood to occur when research delivers benefits beyond academia, to make a demonstrable contribution to society.

The case study selected for the research is the Digital Futures Collaborative Research Network Program at the University of Southern Queensland in Australia. A phenomenological research approach seeks to understand the lived experience of research impact, by exploring the perceptions and experiences of research impact shared by research executives, institutional leaders, senior research officers and researchers. The conceptual framework for the study uses a logic model to understand how research generates impact.

What emerges from the research is evidence that research impact is a complex process, whereby research knowledge makes a difference to knowledge beneficiaries. However, the influence of research knowledge may be difficult to discern due to the nebulous nature of research impact. Participants in this study emphasised that research knowledge achieves impact when it extends understanding, influences perspectives, satisfies curiosity and incites enthusiasm.

The perceptions and experiences shared by the research participants revealed five themes of research impact: research is useful for society; research impact is about making a difference; research impact is a nebulous concept; research impact includes scholarly and real-world impact; and research impact is a shared responsibility. The real-world impact of research is revealed as occurring at the interface of research knowledge and knowledge beneficiaries. The data suggest that research impact includes both scholarly and real-world impact, and that scholarly impact is, in itself, a real-world impact. Efforts to distinguish between scholarly impact and real-world impact, in order to prioritise research with demonstrable benefits for society, may be immaterial and contradictory in a sector influenced by neoliberal doctrine, and dominated by a culture of publish or perish.

Understanding the impact of research knowledge on individuals, groups and communities is a challenging process, due to the indirect, intangible, unexpected and endless influences of research. Attempts to assess research impact may be improved by including knowledge beneficiaries in the process of identifying how research delivers benefits for society.

Achieving real-world impact depends upon the usefulness of research knowledge from the perspective of the knowledge beneficiary. However, an expectation of usefulness alone should not drive university research. Usefulness is a subjective assessment that varies with time and context. The prioritisation of research activities, to address contemporary research concerns, may deliver short-term advantages at the expense of achieving long-term benefit. As evidenced from the data, there is a need to support both applied and blue-sky research activities so that the research conducted in universities can achieve short-term and long-term public good.

The findings from this study reveal the limitations of a logic model approach to understanding research impact, by challenging the linear relationship between research and impact. The five themes of research impact reflect the complexity of real-world impact, and suggest a re-conceptualisation of impact as a process, rather than a product. Re-conceptualising research impact as a process provides an alternative perspective to logic model approaches for understanding the impact of research. The new definition of research impact proposed in this thesis reflects the contemporary reality of public good: Research impact is the process whereby research knowledge makes a difference to the knowledge beneficiary. However, it may not be possible to fully understand and describe how research knowledge makes a difference, given the nebulous nature of research impact, and the indirect, intangible, unexpected and endless influences of research.

Keywordsresearch impact; higher education; higher education research
ANZSRC Field of Research 2020390303. Higher education
Byline AffiliationsAustralian Digital Futures Institute
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