Understanding societal impact through productive interactions: ICT research as a case

Stefan de Jong, Katharine Barker, Deborah Cox, Thordis Sveinsdottir, Peter Van den Besselaar*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleScientificpeer-review


Universities are increasingly expected to fulfill a third mission in addition to those of research and education. Universities must demonstrate engagement with society through the application and exploitation of knowledge. As societal impact of research is uncertain, long term and always dependent on other factors, we argue here that evaluation should focus on the conditions under which societal impact is generated rather than on the impact itself. Here we focus on a specific set of those conditions: the interactions between academic researchers and societal actors. Instead of speculating about potential impacts of research, we argue that current productive interactions of researchers with societal stakeholders improve the probability that future societal impact will occur. This article supports this idea by examining in detail several, mainly retrospective examples. As productive interactions are field specific, we restrict ourselves to 'professional adhocracy fields', especially to information and communication technologies (ICT) research. We address the patterns of productive interactions that result in societal impact within this field and we discuss whether differences are observed in contrast to other fields, such as social sciences and humanities (fragmented adhocracies). We end by discussing the implications that these patterns have for societal impact assessment. Shifting the focus to interactions allows assessment of short-term knowledge transfer and other collaborative efforts with stakeholders that contribute to long-term societal impact.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)89-102
Number of pages14
JournalResearch Evaluation
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2014
Externally publishedYes


  • research assessment
  • societal impact
  • productive interactions
  • fragmented adhocracy


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