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Five great reasons to showcase your societal impact

4 June 2024

By Linda Willems

© Pavel

From meeting funder requirements to driving progress, we explore why it’s so important to highlight real-world applications of your research

As part of a broader shift towards responsible and relevant research, researchers and institutions face a growing pressure to produce and promote outcomes with a social dimension. Here are just some of the factors driving that shift.

1. The scale of the global challenges we face today requires researchers to pool resources and ideas

From climate change to dwindling resources; the effects of these problems are felt worldwide. For many, the key to addressing them is to unite forces. But for that approach to succeed, researchers must openly share project results – even when those results are not encouraging.

Dr Piergiuseppe Morone, Professor of Economic Policy at Rome Unitelma Sapienza, has a strong interest in green innovation and sustainable circular bioeconomy. His passion for the topic prompted him to take on an Editor-in-Chief role for Societal Impactsopens in new tab/window, an Elsevier journal that publishes brief articles describing the societal impacts of research projects, both planned and achieved.

He explains: “The world faces so many problems that the effort to address them is an art and science in and of itself. As a researcher, you need to join efforts with policy makers, civil society and industries to make needed changes doable, effective and timely.

This includes considering the purpose of your research, as well as the methodology and results. Importantly, you need to speak to the rest of the world community about the societal impact of your research.

Tracking success via the SDGs
Piergiuseppe Morone

To help researchers demonstrate their contributions, the journal welcomes submissions that align with one or more of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goalsopens in new tab/window (SDGs). Launched in 2016, the 17 interlinked goals are an example of the growing focus on aligning efforts to effect change.

In 2019, the Times Higher Education launched its first “Impact Rankings” to track universities’ progress towards delivering on the goalsopens in new tab/window. To compile the rankings, it uses indicators across four broad areas, including research. Elsevier provides the data component, including the number of an institution’s publications in Scopus linked to each SDG. Capturing and sharing your societal impact in the form of an academic article can not only help address global issues, it can also boost recognition for your institution in global rankings.

2. Increasingly, funding bodies want to know that the work they support is effecting societal change

A growing number of funding bodies share this appetite for tracking societal impact. Many, including the national “Performance-Based Research Funds” (PBRFs) that have sprung up in some countries, now include related requirements in their submission guidelines.

Individual funding bodies, such as the US’ National Institutes of Health, often ask researchers to outline how they anticipate their work will positively impact society or request a case study / success story. Others want to see evidence of interdisciplinary collaborations.

With PBRFs, the “ask” can be more complex; for example, the Research Excellence Framework, which allocates around £2 billion in public funding to UK higher education providers each year, requires institutions to submit a minimum of one impact case study per disciplinary submission. But whatever form these conditions take, their goal is usually the same – to ensure the funder’s significant investment in research is used to advance societal goals.

3. Evidence of societal impact can help to build public trust in the academic community

There is a growing school of thought that when people see the tangible benefits of research in their lives, they are more likely to support and trust research endeavors. Communicating your contribution to the public in an easily digestible fashion, helps to ensure it reaches the communities that will benefit from it the most.

4. Sharing societal impact also makes it visible to policymakers

Research with clear societal implications can help to shape policies that positively affect people's lives. This is not only important from a societal perspective; it can also support your work in a variety of ways. For example, PBRFs often recognize the influence of research on policy development and decision-making.

5. A growing number of institutions say they will consider wider impact when making recruitment, promotion and tenure decisions

Ensuring your societal impact is shared publicly can also be beneficial to your career. Many institutions now recognize that to fully understand your potential as a researcher, they need to look beyond publication counts and citations to contributions that address global challenges, promote equity and inclusion, or positively influence public perception.

For example, surveys and roundtables hosted by Elsevier have shown that introducing measures for societal impact is high on academic leaders’ wish lists. And some are already taking concrete steps to make that change happen. Queensland University of Technology is just one example – in collaboration with Elsevier, it has developed a recruitment application that highlights attributes like mentoring, social engagement and collaboration.

How can you raise the profile of your societal impact?

There are lots of ways you can maximize exposure of your societal contributions. Here are two Elsevier resources that can help.

Submit an article to Societal Impacts

Launched in 2023, Societal Impactsopens in new tab/window is an international open access journal that welcomes submissions from all disciplines and fields that convey the impact of research on society. Publishing a Societal Impacts article not only helps you generate the case studies and increased article numbers sought by university rankings, funders and promotion boards, it also ensures your work is available for others to use and build upon.

Follow the modules on Elsevier’s Researcher Academy

This free e-learning platform has a number of courses devoted to societal impact.


Portrait photo of Linda Willems


Linda Willems

Freelance writer and owner

Blue Lime Communications

Read more about Linda Willems