A professor’s mission: Translating his university’s research into societal impact

As a champion of open scholarship, Prof. Nicol Keith is building bridges between academia and the rest of the world

By Alison Bert, DMA - December 12, 2019  10 mins
Nicol Keith main
Nicol Keith, PhD, Professor of Molecular Oncology at the University of Glasgow and Director of Research Impact at the Institute of Cancer Sciences, celebrates the work of graduating-year Product Design students from the Innovation School of the Glasgow School of Art at the Future Experiences of Cancer Treatment exhibition.

As a researcher at the University of Glasgow, Prof. Nicol Keith investigates therapeutic applications of molecular oncology.

But his work doesn’t stop there.

In his other role, as Director of Research Impact for his university’s Institute of Cancer Sciences, Nicol makes sure the research being done there ultimately gets to the people who need it. That involves advocating for open access and “open scholarship.” And it involves working with people across disciplines and in government and industry.

It’s part of a growing trend in academia – making sure research has a positive impact on society. Part of this movement is related to a mindset: researchers do want to make a difference in the world. In addition, funding from government and grant organizations is increasingly tied to the expectation of societal impact. To ensure this impact, universities are appointing research executives and investing in systems and training to make sure their institution’s research extends across disciplines and beyond academia.

“We’ve been encouraged – quite explicitly – to take into account the consequences of what we do and try and ensure that the research, as much as possible, can make it to the outside world,” Nicol said. “I think a lot of universities, certainly in the UK, acknowledge the contribution they can make to the economy and to society.”

It’s something he’s always thought about in his work in translational medicine, he said, “but in the past, nobody could really tell you how to do that – you just did it.”

Nowadays, however, the goal of making an impact is systemized and incentivized. To this end, researchers are encouraged to work with colleagues outside of their university and in the corporate sector.

“This kind of partnership is supported and recognized and indeed rewarded,” Nicol said. “And that's something that I find exceptionally encouraging.

“We are seeing a huge culture change,” he added. “My university … has worked very hard to ensure that that culture does allow, as much as possible, people to work so that there's a porous nature between what happens inside and outside of the university. We’re being encouraged to be much more explicit about the fact that real value and also the quality and relevance of what you do can be increased by taking into account societal needs or economic needs.”

Advocating for open research and open scholarship

One way Nicol extends the reach of his own research is by publishing open access. For example, his research team published a series of research articles open access in Elsevier’s Seminars in Cancer Biology journal, and their latest paper is published in Elsevier’s open access oncology journal Neoplasia:

I see open access as one important component of open research or open scholarship, which I am extremely keen on,” he said. “Making information available to everyone as fast as possible is key to this. I think it's important for research integrity – for allowing research to move forward quickly and to allow groups who will not necessarily have access to information to also use it and be creative in other ways. For example, we tend to forget that cancer also affects low- and middle-income countries, and it will affect them more over time.

“Actually lots of the relevance of what you're doing in cancer, and indeed a lot of research, has a global dimension, yet vast numbers of people will never be able to access that information, Nicol said. “And that inequality is not acceptable.

“So I think finding ways of working open access – but more importantly open research – is very important. I actually think that the large publishing houses have a huge role to play there.”

Recently, Nicol visited Elsevier to give a talk about his work in open research.

“Academics need to be a lot more aware of everybody's needs, including the publishing companies’ and how publishing is changing,” he said.

A growing ecosystem of research and funding

In many countries, open access is now a requirement for funding. In the UK, for example, research must be published open access to be included in national evaluations, in which major funding bodies access the research of the nation’s higher education institutions to decide how to allocate funding.

“The funding agencies are becoming key stakeholders because they are intermediaries between, say, companies like yours or big industry or governments,” Nicol explained.

That reality has broadened the research community and transformed the way we work together.

“I’m not just going to meetings where I see people that just look like me,” Nicol said.

In addition to meeting with academics at his university, he meets with policy experts who used to work in government, and with technology experts who worked in corporate R&D. “Sometimes you might need someone to help you write a policy brief, so we have people who used to be politicians. At most universities, there are tech transfer people who worked in industry.”

Often, the meetings also involve people from outside the university: from NGOs and pharmaceutical companies, for example. The conversations revolve around how research can be used by society and by industry.

Recently, Nicol co-authored the results of an EU-sponsored ACCOMPLISSH project about how 14 universities across Europe are “encouraging research impact on the economy and wider society.”

Nicol with Accomplissh 2
Prof. Nicol Keith gives a presentation about the ACCOMPLISSH initiative, in which researchers from 14 European universities are finding ways to support the impact of research on society. The event was at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands.

“Supporting policy is driving a culture change … around open scholarship and making sure (research is) about real-world relevance,” he said.

Enter the role of the research broker

To facilitate high-impact research, people with expertise are serving as brokers, connecting researchers with the people they need to further their studies and maximize the impact of their research.

“We often work with companies, NGOs or government agencies who sit between universities and policymakers or industry and have expertise in knowledge exchange and innovation processes,” Nicol said. “I would say those groups are critical to researchers now.”

Nicol was about to take part in a meeting with the nonprofit Association of European Science & Technology Transfer Professionals (ASTP) in Austria. There, he will meet with colleagues in the social sciences and humanities, sharing knowledge and experience to come up with new ways to develop knowledge exchange capacities, maximizing impact across disciplines, sectors and stakeholders.

Prof. Nicol Keith works with knowledge-exchange professionals from academia, broker and nonprofit organizations in an impact café setting at the Social Sciences, Humanies & Arts Special Interest Group Meeting: Beyond Training in Social Sciences, Humanities and Arts knowledge transfer December 2019 in Vienna.

“I think what you've got to be open to is working with people you've never worked with before,” he said. “And that's difficult because in some places, that will still be counter to career, but in many places that's becoming more common.”

Tracking and measuring impact

To measure the impact of research, Nicol likes to go beyond the traditional measure of academic citations. For example, he uses altmetrics to see how people and the media are interacting with published research and how it’s being used for policy. And to get a broader view of how research is being used and cited, he uses Elsevier’s SciVal.

“I think an increasingly interesting area is to show the value of working with others,” he said. “There are things that you can do with relative simplicity with SciVal. You can look at papers where you co-authored with industry or co-authored with the (National) Health Service or both. … You can often show that if you publish with people from, say, industry, your papers were highly cited by news media and in field-weighted citation indexes.”

Prof. Nicol Keith used this chart to show the benefits of collaborating across disciplines and with industry and government. (Source: SciVal)

In fact, the culture change he speaks about is ultimately about how to define success in research.

“We will also look at access and download of data sets, not just citation of papers,” he explained. “Citation of papers is important to us, but we are increasingly interested in usage – how is (research) actually being used by people? So is it appearing in policy documents? Is it leading to, say, a contract with industry? Is it actually being used for social enterprise? So what the consequences are of our research and how its contributing to changes beyond academia.

“We also take a very enlightened view on what data is,” he added. “That's because within universities, output means lots of different things. So for people in other disciplines, that could be an exhibition or a performance or it could be a physical artifact. And I'd have to say that that is a wonderful thing to start thinking about. So we actually start thinking about data and output as a range of things.

Recently, Nicol led a university collaboration the Institute of Cancer Sciences and the Innovation School at Glasgow School of Art. Graduating-year Product Design students from the Innovation School were presented with a challenge-based project to produce a vision of what will happen in a cancer landscape 10 years from now when cancer precision medicine has evolved to the extent that new forms of medical practice, cancer treatment and care transform how we interact with each other, with professionals and the world around us. This project involved working closely with over 20 stakeholders, including scientists, clinicians, patients and industry and academic professionals. The output from this was developed as an experiential exhibit of products, services and experiences that was presented in public exhibitions in Glasgow and London as well as the international industry event Can Do Innovation Summit in Glasgow.

TrialSeek presentation
Erlend Prenderghast’s TrialSeek was among the projects unveiled at the exhibition Innovations for Precision Medicine in Cancer Care, a collaboration between Glasgow University’s Institute of Cancer Sciences and the Innovation School at Glasgow School of Art. Looking at the challenges in recruiting people for cancer trials, Erlend proposed a method of gathering and analyzing data on an individual’s lifestyle and environment to match them with clinical trials. (Citation: Ross et al, 2019)

Another important element of this exhibition is that they are sharing all aspects of it, from how and why they did it to support for combating fear of cancer recurrence, lifestyle products, new job roles for patient support and the new frameworks for delivering proposed clinical trials. They published this information in Ross et al: A collaborative approach to exploring the future of Cancer treatment and care in relation to Precision Medicine: A design perspective, 2019).

Another way he shares his learnings about research impact is by teaching a MOOC  developed by Nicol and his colleagues at the University of Glasgow, that is freely available through FutureLearn. The course was co-designed with stakeholders from industry, the health services, civic organizations, patient groups and NGOs, who also help teach the course. As Nicol noted:

Universities worldwide are committed to realizing the economic and societal impact of their research. By developing this online course with direct input from a range of stakeholders, we hope to help people understand the research impact landscape and, importantly, give them tools, tactics and confidence to really make a difference.

The Elsevier Advisory Panel

Prof. Nicol Keith is a member of the Elsevier Advisory Panel, a global curated researcher community created and managed by the Customer Discovery & Innovation team in Elsevier’s Analytical Services group. Elsevier colleagues engage with this invitation-only community, which currently includes nearly 3,500 members, to gain a wide range of customer insights relevant to new concept validation, product innovation and other topics of importance to the community, such as open access, gender, and artificial intelligence. Members give input through in-depth, personal interviews, online focus groups, polls, diary studies and other methods.


Written by

Alison Bert, DMA

Written by

Alison Bert, DMA

As Executive Editor of Strategic Communications at Elsevier, Dr. Alison Bert works with contributors around the world to publish daily stories for the global science and health communities. Previously, she was Editor-in-Chief of Elsevier Connect, which won the 2016 North American Excellence Award for Science & Education.

Alison joined Elsevier in 2007 from the world of journalism, where she was a business reporter and blogger for The Journal News, a Gannett daily newspaper in New York. In the previous century, she was a classical guitarist on the music faculty of Syracuse University. She received a doctorate in music from the University of Arizona, was Fulbright scholar in Spain, and studied in a master class with Andrés Segovia.

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