Conceptualizing the elements of research impact: towards semantic standards

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Any effort to understand, evaluate, and improve the impact of research must begin with clear concepts and definitions. Currently, key terms to describe research results are used ambiguously, and the most common definitions for these terms are fundamentally flawed. This hinders research design, evaluation, learning, and accountability. Specifically, the terms outcome and impact are often defined and distinguished from one another using relative characteristics, such as the degree, directness, scale, or duration of change. It is proposed instead to define these terms by the kind of change rather than by the degree or temporal nature of change. Research contributions to a change process are modeled as a series of causally inter-related steps in a results chain or results web with three main kinds of results: (i) the direct products of research, referred to as outputs; (ii) changes in the agency and actions of system actors when they are informed/influenced by research outputs, referred to as outcomes; and (iii) tangible changes in the social, economic, environmental, or other physical condition, referred to as realized benefits. Complete definitions for these terms are provided, along with examples. This classification aims to help focus research evaluation appropriately and enhance appreciation of the multiple pathways and mechanisms by which scholarship contributes to change.

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