Tag Archives: impact factor

Happy Birthday, blog – some thoughts on research impact

One year has passed since the day I decided to share my adventures and reflections with my group, while I was on sabbatical. The blog quickly became more than a short-term communication plan with my nearest colleagues.

In the 365 days that have passed, the blog has received 6901 unique views from 70 countries. That gives me plenty more readers than I will ever have for all my scientific articles!

Impact of the research is something that is always discussed when academic promotions are judged. However, by impact, academic institutions mean the Impact factor. This factor denotes the number of citations the articles of a person have received. It says nothing about the actual impact of the work on policy or practice.

One of the roles of academic researchers in Sweden is what is called ‘the third task’. The first two tasks are research and teaching, whereas the third task involves informing and educating the public, indeed to affect policy and practice.

One might think that the third task is one of our most important ones, given that we are financed by public money. However, publishing popular science articles, lecturing to the public, or participating in public debate generates no academic points, whatsoever. In Sweden. So far.

Research Councils UK is much further ahead in defining research impact: ‘the demonstrable contribution that excellent research makes to society and the economy’.

They say that it is not enough just to focus on activities and outputs, such as conferences and scientific publications. You must be able to ‘provide evidence of research impact, for example, that it has been taken up and used by policy makers, and practitioners, has led to improvements in services or business’.

A colleague of mine in Sweden was not promoted to professor based on too low impact – of the traditional kind. Her articles had appeared in journals that published outside the area of cells and did not concern cancer.

It never mattered that her research had changed the practices of midwives nationwide in treating a minority population of women with far higher than average pregnancy-related complications. It never mattered that these complications had significantly decreased thanks to changes in practice propelled by her qualitative studies. I knew she had had an impact when one of the leading politicians in the country told me about my colleague’s research. But hey, her Hirsch-index was too low…

Although I have to play the game of impact factors, I have decided to allow time for pursuing the third task, irrespective of academic points gained. Continuing the blog is, but one way – hopefully to your pleasure.

But this summer I also discovered a new way to create impact, while having great fun: writing a children’s book. Sneaking in effective components from parenting- and couple interventions in the storyline is a possible pathway for impact. Measurable? Maybe.


Photo: Fanni Sarkadi, Bohuslän

One of the children the book was pilot-tested on asked his mother to buy a bean-bag for a version of the timeout routine described in the book. He thought it sounded like a great idea to chill out a few minutes on a bean-bag when things get out of control. Another group of children started helping a friend who suffered from problems with impulse control by warning him for his signs of “the red rage” they had heard described in the book.

Publishing a book is of course not as easy as hitting the “publish” button here on WordPress. Thank you for reading me. Thank you for the comments, and thank you for spreading the word.

Measuring for improvement

One of the things I have to do as a leader is to guide my group to reach its goals. This, of course, requires setting measurable goals. Then we have to monitor our progress based on data that somehow describe the goals we set up. If we do not measure our achievements, we will not know if we have succeeded. If the goals we are to reach are not described in ways that are in accordance with actions we can take to reach them, we might as well save ourselves the trouble of setting goals in the first place.

In the swimming hall in Uppsala where I like to go to do my laps, there are three lanes: Extra fast, Fast, and Exercise swimming. In Melbourne, there were also three lanes: Fast, Medium, and Slow. There was also a sign saying that if someone taps your toe while swimming you should move to a slower lane.

If my goal is to be faster at swimming what should I do? “Exercise” will get me there, right? But if no one taps my toe if I am too slow, how will I know I should be moving faster? If my goal is simply to exercise – is the Exercise lane the right one for me? Well, no, because the ones who swim there are extremely SLOW and I do crawling.

ImagePhoto: Fanni Sarkadi, Melbourne, Australia

The issue of measuring is of course not an easy one. In science we use things, such as impact factors and rankings. Such technical measures of success are criticized for creating a business management paradigm in research and are argued to not necessarily enhance quality. However, I guess the fact that there is a journal called Scientometrics (a Hungarian co-publication) shows that bibliometry is here to stay.

It is also hard to measure quality in health care. Physicians are particularly weary of letting the essence of their profession be forced into dry numbers. Nevertheless – if your loved ones had cancer, would you rather have them treated at a centre with 0,5% complications and 85% 5-year survival rates or somewhere with worse or not even measured outcomes?

Schools are a third sector where measurement is a subject of perpetual debate. Should we or should we not give grades, from which age, based on what criteria?

When Johanna saw her grades in year 5 in Australia she said she wanted better ones. At our meeting to develop Johanna’s study plan for this year in Sweden I asked the teacher if she could help Johanna by giving her an indication of what grade her performance on tests would give her. “We don’t do grades in year 5”, she said. I know that, I said indication, you know, make-belief type of thing. Nope. And my daughter, obviously in need of some kind of measure and/or external motivator simply said: “Ok, I will study in sixth grade, not now”. That really made my day.

Don’t misunderstand me: I truly believe that intrinsic motivation (fun animation of Pink’s book in the link) is the best motivator and that as a research group leader my task is to find, not kill people’s drive to do good work. But even people who are truly intrinsically motivated need a certain measure of goal fulfilment. They want to know they are doing their job well. They want to be reaching goals. They want to know they have contributed!

I have heard so many frustrated colleagues who work hard and never know whether or not they are doing a good job. They become bitter and negative and lose their motivation, not because someone is trying to control them, but because nobody cares to value their work!

So I think the discussion every sector and workplace should be having is not whether we should be measuring our goals, but rather how this should be done best to tell us (and our clients and financers) if we are doing a good job.