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REF case studies: making the most of the extra page

By Iain Coleman | Jul 08, 2019
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When research impact was introduced as one of the assessment criteria for the 2014 Research Excellence Framework, the main way universities were asked to account for their impact was in the form of case studies. These short documents had clearly specified sections in which to outline the research, tell the story of how this led to impact in the world outside of academia and provide evidence and citations to back up the claims. All within an absolutely strict limit of four pages.

In the post-REF post mortems, it soon became clear that impact would remain as a criterion for the next REF (now set for 2021), and that case studies would continue to be the primary method of evaluating this. As ever, there was a lengthy process of consultation, proposals and feedback as the team at Research England established the rules for the next REF, but it seemed from an early stage that the case study format would remain more or less unchanged.

So when I first heard that the page limit for REF impact case studies was to be increased, from four pages to five, I must admit I was a little surprised. I hadn’t been aware of any great clamor in the sector for this increase, and I would be astonished indeed if the REF panelists had been demanding a 20% increase in workload. Certainly, in my own experience, I never found that the four-page limit imposed any great difficulties, and indeed the discipline it imposed helped to encourage concisely, focused writing.

So why did this happen, and what should case study writers do about it? Attempting to delve into the motivations behind the REF regulations is a tricky business, so right now I’ll concentrate on the second question. There’s the temptation, of course, to use the extra space for more detail about more impacts, or to decide not to bother editing a flabby first draft down into a tight set of paragraphs, but I think this is the wrong approach. For the most part, more detail just means more waffle, with the key points of the impact buried in a quicksand of extraneous information that no one but the writer thinks is of crucial importance. And sharpening up the prose will always be to the good.

No, I think it’s best to consider this change along with the reiteration of the 2014 regulation that non-textual content is permitted in the case study, provided it fits into the page limit. One of the most obvious things about 2014’s case study collection – so obvious you can easily miss it – is that the vast preponderance of the case studies is text-only documents. Some tell engaging stories, some present great indigestible clumps of data, but remarkably few use any kind of pictures or diagrams.

This is understandable enough. A picture takes up quite a lot of space on the page, and unless it really is worth a thousand words it’s unlikely to justify the reduction in text content that it entails. However, when you have a whole extra page to deal with, that equation changes. In a five-page case study, there is plenty of room (20% more!) for an effective account of the impact and helpful graphics.

And once we start thinking in those terms, we can start being a bit more imaginative and creative with graphical content. In 2014, this was mainly images or key graphs from the underpinning research publications, and for the most part, looked as if they had only been put in because it was impossible to give a decent account without the graphic to refer to. This time around, there is much more scope for infographics, summing up the key points of the text in an instantly-understandable format, contextualizing the deeper and more detailed account of the impact to be found in the prose sections.

I don’t know how many impact case study writers will take advantage of this opportunity. But I do feel that those who do will find that their case studies are more readily understood and appreciated by the REF panelists. How big a difference that will make to the final star rating, I don’t know: but given the huge stack of case studies, they have to work through, a vivid infographic that helps them get to the heart of the matter certainly isn’t going to hurt.

About Iain Coleman

Dr. Iain Coleman is the Research Engagement Manager at Impact Science. He has previously had an extensive career in UK Higher Education, having been Head of Impact and REF Support at Kingston University London, REF Manager at the Queen Mary University of London, and Science Writer at the University of Edinburgh. His own research background is in astrophysics and space science, having received a Ph.D. in Astrophysics from the University of Glasgow before undertaking postdoctoral research in solar-terrestrial physics at the British Antarctic Survey. However, his work in science writing and impact support has encompassed the full range of academic research, from particle physics and telecommunications to continental philosophy and experimental dance.

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