Table 1

Distinguishing between research impact and academic output

CategoryDefinition and example
Policy impactPolicy impact refers to research that informs rules established by an organisation (ie, a policymaker) to govern behaviour.9 Scientists can contribute to health policy by submitting relevant research evidence to policymakers, by helping to develop national and local policies, and by contributing to government enquiries (eg, by serving on expert panels or through consultation exercises). For example, research in Canada reported an elevated risk of injury among PeeWee hockey players in leagues that permitted body checking at age 11–12 years compared with leagues that introduced body checking from 13 to 14 years. These data contributed to Hockey Canada’s policy change to delay body checking until 13–14 years of age.10
Economic impactEconomic impacts of health research include commercialising applied health research, healthcare cost savings through reduced morbidity and mortality as a result of interventions produced by health research, or the monetary value of improved health that is informed by research. In the UK during 2013, multifaceted physiotherapy for low back pain improved quality of life to yield an estimated return on investment in related research of £130 million after accounting for the cost of delivering the intervention.7
Societal impactSocietal impact encompasses many terms such as the third-stream activities, societal benefits, societal utility, public value, and societal relevance of health research.11 Although many initiatives have been developed to evaluate the societal impact of health research,12 13 there is still a gap around standardised measures that have been agreed upon and adopted by the research community at large.13 Good Life with osteoArthritis in Denmark (GLA:D) is a population-based programme that implemented clinical guidelines to treat hip and knee osteoarthritis through patient education and physiotherapist-supervised exercise.14 Twelve months after starting the programme, patients reported doing more physical activity and taking fewer pain medications than before entering the programme. Fewer patients took sick leave during the first year of the programme compared with the year prior to participating in the programme.14
Academic outputAcademic output is a measure of scientists’ academic performance and research productivity, and is often conflated with the importance and impact of research. Academic output refers to scientists’ intellectual contributions within academia. Many metrics aim to capture the academic output of a scientist and their research, including document-level (eg, publication count), author-level (eg, number of institutional affiliations), and journal-level (eg, journal impact factor) metrics.2 It is unclear, however, whether academic output relates to research impact. A cluster-randomised controlled trial investigating the efficacy of an injury prevention warm-up on acute knee injuries in female adolescent soccer players has been cited over 350 times in 8 years.15 Since publication in a high-impact factor journal, the article has been viewed over 38 000 times and boasts an Altmetric Attention Score in the 98th percentile compared with outputs of the same age and source. From this impressive academic output alone, it can be unclear how this research has contributed to policy change or how it has positively impacted the economic or societal burden of anterior cruciate ligament injuries.