Ralph Kenna photo


Ralph Kenna (Personal webpage)

Coventry University, Coventry, United Kingdom

“Impact” is emerging as a keyword in academia. As research is mostly funded by the taxpayer, there is an increasing drive for researchers to account for their work to society. It is no longer enough to indulge in one’s curiosities in the noble pursuit of higher knowledge – now we have to explain what impact our work brings to non-academic sectors too. The increasing impact of impact in national evaluation frameworks is spearheaded by the UK. But besides accounting for the past and present, we now have to foresee the future: many funding bodies demand we predict the impact of work before it is carried out. This drive to Impact has forced some academics to take a step down from the lofty heights of the “ivory towers” – to the “real world” to engage with an alien culture. Part of that culture is nourished by the new industry of scientometrics and research management. These industries feed themselves - as funders write the rules of impact, managers scuffle to interpret them and train each other in their interpretations of them. Thus vast amounts are spent on consultancy where “experts” train academics in the tools developed by academics.

Beloved of such experts are simple counting tools – one dimensional yardsticks to measure the value of what they don’t understand. As the uncountable is counted the sector becomes corporate; whereas in the past academics and students were the university, academics are becoming “resources” and students become “customers.” Higher positions in national and international rankings lead to more “customers” and more money for the university.

Some of the responsibility for this phase transition in academia lies with academics themselves. In their desire to pick the high hanging fruit of knowledge and scale the ivory towers, academics leave open the gates to new types of managers and consultants to take control and drive research away from curiosity towards the “real world”. They reap fruits as rich as those of the corporate world while endow themselves with titles once the preserve of the learned.

If the hitherto unmeasurable is to be measured, let it be with the right yardsticks and in the right hands. In these lectures I give one academic’s experience of trying to measure the unmeasurable while keeping a firm grasp on the ivory tower. I start with brief history of mathematical sciences in a UK University, relating how statistical-physics-based research aided the growth of mathematics and physics there. Using ideas and concepts of statistical physics I describe a simple model which quantifies the notion of “critical mass” in research groups. As in the Ising model, interactions play a crucial role. I next compare peer review to scientometrics and the extent to which one can predict the other. I then explain, while it can be both perilous and rewarding, the notion of impact beyond the ivory towers is important. I end with a case study illustrating how unpredictable impact can be and a few words of advice for the next generation of impactful academics.


[1] R. Kenna and B. Berche, The extensive nature of group quality, EPL 90, 58002 (2010). arXiv:physics.soc-ph/1004.3155.
[2] R. Kenna and B. Berche, Critical mass and the dependency of research quality on group size, Scientometrics 86, 527 – 540 (2011). arXiv:physics.soc-ph/1006.0928.
[3] O. Mryglod, R. Kenna, Yu. Holovatch and B. Berche, Absolute and specific measures of research group excellence, Scientometrics 95, 115-127 (2013) . arXiv:stat.AP/1210.0732.
[4] O. Mryglod, R. Kenna, Yu. Holovatch and B. Berche, Comparison of citation-based indicators and peer review for absolute and specific measures of research-group excellence, Scientometrics 97, 767-777 (2013). arXiv:cs.DL/1305.6256.
[5] Olesya Mryglod, Ralph Kenna, Yurij Holovatch and Bertrand Berche, Predicting Results of the Research Excellence Framework using departmental h-Index, Scientometrics 102, 2165-2180 (2015). arXiv:cs.DL/1411.1996.
[6] Olesya Mryglod, Ralph Kenna, Yurij Holovatch and Bertrand Berche, Predicting Results of the Research Excellence Framework using departmental h-Index - Revisited, Scientometrics 104, 1013-1017 (2015). cs.DL/1501.07857.
[7] R.S. MacKay, S. Parker, R. Low and R. Kenna, Calibration with confidence: a principled method for panel assessment, R. Soc. open sci. 4, 160760 (2017) . arXiv:stat.ME/1504.00340.