Research impact case studies now account for 25% of the weighting for the UK Research Excellence Framework (REF). This is an increase from 16% in REF 2014. Therefore, it is essential that universities discover their best candidate case studies for REF 2021 as soon as possible if they have not already done so.

Identifying the best case study prospects may represent a greater challenge for institutions with less resource to devote to research. These include universities where the focus is strongly on teaching, or small institutions, or universities that have not previously returned to the REF.

Quick answers but no quick wins?

When resource for research is very limited, we might be tempted to search for quick answers that solve a short-term challenge. For example, “We know Professor X had a case study last time so we’ll get her to write one for the next REF”. I have observed this kind of thinking in some institutions.

However, I would argue that this type of approach is not helpful for a number of reasons.

  1. Professor X may indeed be able to write a case study for the next REF, but maybe there are other emerging case studies that are more promising.
  2. Professor X may be in danger of us burdening her once again with the large amount of work required to develop a good case study. Does she have time in her workload?
  3. Although, increasingly, researchers have a good understanding of impact, relatively few of them need to write an impact case study for each REF. What will happen when we get to REF 2028 or the one after that? Will Professor X still be around? Will we need to start the learning cycle once again?

My approach to identifying impact case studies for the REF is to take a long-term view. One that embeds learning in the institution and prepares for the future. We all know that the work required to achieve an excellent case study takes time. The earlier we can identify possible prospects, the better our chances of a good rating will be.

I look for impact case studies at all stages of development. We won’t return most of them to REF 2021 but some of them may look very promising for REF 2028. Or REF 2035 (or whenever the REF  – or the successor to the REF – turns out to be in that decade).


I prefer to start with a trawl. We can do this simply by sending a short email to all researchers asking them to reply with answers to a few questions. That’s all that is needed initially. Useful information includes:

  • Likely Unit of Assessment or subject area.
  • Draft title or some key words for the impact case study.
  • A few bullet points about the impact already achieved (in the researcher’s opinion).
  • A few bullet points about the impact likely to be achieved by a couple of dates in the future. These would include the deadline for REF 2021 and, say,  2 and 5 years after that.
  • Very important – what they are doing (or going to do) to achieve this future impact by those deadlines?
  • A few bullet points about the key research findings underpinning the impact.

The information received will allow us to categorise prospective impact case studies as ‘probable’, ‘possible’ or ‘unlikely’ for the next REF. The ones deemed ‘possible’ or ‘unlikely’ may appear promising for later REFs.

The information we get may also highlight the level of understanding of research impact among researchers and could suggest the need for training in some areas.

Of course, not everyone we would like to respond will do so! Here are further ways we can identify impact case studies.

Look back

Yes, researchers who had impact case studies for the last REF may have something to offer next time too.

Another possibility is researchers who have left. But a difficulty here may be finding someone who can take the lead in developing the impact case study.

Look forward

We mustn’t overlook researchers who have recently joined the university. Even if they are unlikely to have a case study for the next REF, they may be a good prospect for the one afterwards.

The collaborators

Many researchers hold grants funded by, or in collaboration with, non-academic organisations. (We can  look at the university’s database of grants held.) These organisations most likely had an application of the research findings in mind when they funded the work. There may be impact or emerging impact. We need to check.

Some researchers may have research outputs published with someone working outside academia. This could also indicate an application of the research findings, as above.

Researchers involved in Knowledge Transfer Partnerships (KTPs), or collaborative doctoral studentships, or Master’s students undertaking their research project in collaboration with an organisation outside academia, may also be worth us talking to as there could be emerging impact.

The interactors

Researchers with a strong media profile generally have some research outcomes that interest the public. The same applies to researchers involved in public engagement activities, such as festivals or other events. Even if impact from their public engagement is limited, there may be other types of impact that we can use as well to give a good impact case study.

When 1 + 1 > 2

Sometimes an individual researcher or research group has a limited amount of impact but insufficient to make a convincing care study. But they may have a colleague who is generating impact in a complementary area of research. It may be worth us considering combining these different strands of work in one case study.

Some final points…

We need to:

  1. Trawl widely to unearth the strongest contenders for the next REF.
  2. Aim to find and support good prospects for impact case studies for future REFs.
  3. Accept that leading an impact case study takes time and needs to be reflected in workloads.

Related posts by Jenny Ames

How should we balance the research impact ecosystem?

Key elements of a research impact culture

Jenny Ames had a 35 year university career both as an academic and a senior university manager before establishing Jenny Ames Consulting Ltd in 2017. She has led on all aspects of research at faculty and university level. She was also founding Research Impact Lead for University Alliance. Jenny Ames Consulting Ltd was founded to initiate, nurture and sustain strategic partnerships stemming from the needs of society, the outputs of academic research and the expertise residing in universities. These partnerships involve universities and organisations including the private, public and charity sectors, civic society and communities.
Jenny is available to give talks, run workshops, lead brainstorming sessions and provide mentoring and coaching. She can advise on all aspects of REF 2021 preparations, and strategy development and implementation regarding research and cross-organisation partnerships. Jenny also coaches researchers and others undergoing (or thinking of embarking on) career transition. Jenny is currently completing the Postgraduate Certificate in Coaching and Mentoring Practice at Oxford Brookes University.


Author Jenny Ames

Working with Universities, Businesses and their Stakeholders to benefit Society.

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