1.2 Some other key terms

Public engagement can be closely interconnected with some of the other ways in which academics communicate with audiences beyond academia, but it is important to note the distinction between these different types of communication. Some other terminology which you might encounter in relation to these kinds of interaction is as follows:

  • Outreach involves working with schools, colleges, and lifelong learners to raise awareness of the opportunities offered by universities (for example, by producing materials which relate to topics on school curricula). It is usually locally focused and is often linked to raising aspirations and recruiting students. Unlike public engagement with research, the focus of outreach is not usually on sharing current academic research. It would be classed as public engagement with research as well as outreach only if the academic researchers involved were specifically sharing their own research. 

  • Widening participation (sometimes abbreviated to WP) involves working to reach people with backgrounds which are under-represented in higher education settings, and removing the barriers to their accessing teaching in universities. As is the case with outreach, the focus of WP is not usually on sharing current academic research and again, this activity would be classed as public engagement with research only if the academic researchers involved were sharing their own research.

  • Impact is the term used to refer to the effect which research has beyond academia, or the change which it brings about in the wider world. The Research Excellence Framework (the system for assessing the quality of research in UK higher education institutions, usually abbreviated to REF) defines research impact as ‘an effect on, change or benefit to the economy, society, culture, public policy or services, health, the environment or quality of life, beyond academia’. Generally impact in this context refers to the impact of a specific piece of research. Public engagement with research can be a ‘pathway to impact’ for the REF (that is, one of many means by which impact can be achieved), but it is not classed as an impact in itself.

  • Knowledge transfer (KT) and knowledge exchange (KE) are broad terms used to refer to the processes by which knowledge is disseminated and shared. Both can describe elements of public engagement activity. In particular 'knowledge exchange' is a helpful term to use when referring to the two-way (or sometimes multi-way) conversations which can be generated through public engagement.

In short, in order to establish whether an activity you are involved in can be classed as public engagement with research, ask yourself ‘Does this activity do something to share my own research with a non-specialist audience?’ If the answer is yes, you are doing public engagement!

Last modified: Tuesday, 28 July 2020, 3:51 PM