& key takeaways


Digital innovation and improved connectivity are changing the way many of us access information, communicate, and learn.

In academia, advances in the digital space make it easier for researchers to collaborate and share findings. However, despite these opportunities, published research is often cited as inaccessible, or difficult to use in practice.

Our commitment to help researchers drive change in society, along with supporting quality education for all, has prompted us to seek answers to questions on how research is currently used and shared both within and outside of academia. We also look at how research outputs might be developed in the future to advance accessibility, learning, and real-world impact.

We gathered global perspectives on the future trends in learning and research presentation, comparing the views of students, early career stage researchers and the established research community.

You can use the 'On this page' and 'In the report' menus to quickly see and jump to content you're interested in, or scroll down to see what's here. You can also download this report as a PDF.

Section 1


The way we learn, research and share information has changed dramatically over the last couple of decades. However, is academic research, and the institutions and funding bodies that support it, keeping up with these advances or are the structures that dictate research communication still stuck in the past?

The COVID-19 crisis has undoubtedly fast-tracked digital transformation as many parts of the world shifted to remote working and learning. Academics and students were forced to swap their lecture halls for online platforms and rapidly adapt to remote learning, meeting and research.

There has been an accelerated move to make science more open. Academics, funders, and publishers across the world have come together to advance research on both COVID-19 and related work. Publishers have taken down paywalls to make COVID-19 research and related work freely available to all, while researchers have raced to share their insights and findings via pre-print servers (platforms that publish research papers before peer review) and other digital platforms.

Many of the changes in education and research were already afoot, but COVID-19 has offered an opportunity for thought and experimentation. As we emerge from the pandemic, many higher education institutions are under pressure to rethink their approaches to education.

Academics are debating how research should be communicated in the future so it can inform decision makers and influencers outside of academia and to what extent the move to open and rapid publication remains the new normal.

Taking this opportunity to reassess the future shape of how information is presented both for learning and for academic research to be impactful in driving change is a significant moment in our history and essential for our societies to meet the growing demands of the 21st century.


Academics, non academics, & the research paper

When we examine current research outputs, the academic paper leads the pack and has done for over 350 years. Though it has been digitised and can be accessed online, it still follows the same structure of text, figures, methodology and findings that it always has; not much has evolved in the way we present academic papers, despite changes in learning styles.

Journal articles dominate academic communication, but they tell only one part of the research story. More and more academics are turning to other formats to share their work and research experiences. Released from the rigid structure of the journal article, academics have the freedom to discuss their research in more accessible and engaging ways, using avenues such as social media, videos and games to reach new audiences, which broadens reach and usability to others who process information differently.

With such a variety of options, for how long will traditional academic outputs remain the primary way to communicate research?


The power of academic culture

A departure from the academic paper would mean a shakeup of the research ecosystem. Academic culture is wedded to the research paper to such an extent that decisions on hiring, promotion, reward, recognition, and funding often rest on the success of a researcher’s publishing career.


The impact agenda

For most researchers, the real point of their work is to make a tangible difference to society. They want accessible research outputs to influence thinking, inform ‘real world’ decisions and for impact to be demonstrated broader than the citation metrics.

To this end, funders and national research assessments such as the UK Research Excellence Framework and the Excellence in Research for Australia require institutions to demonstrate the impact of their research beyond academia. There are also grassroots initiatives including the Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA), which urges funders, academic institutions and publishers to move away from citations and evaluate the impact of all research outputs.


Supporting the path to real-world impact

We know that part of the journey to real-world impact relies on making research accessible and engaging for policy makers, communities, and end-users. To help us and others in the research ecosystem understand how best to support real-world decision making, along with learning at university, we turned to academics, undergraduates and postgraduates for their views on these issues. We also wanted them to answer the question that if academia solely presents research in traditional formats, that only it can understand, will it ever make the kind of real world impact most researchers want?

We probed into the current ways academics, undergraduates and postgraduates learn and consume information, the challenges with current academic formats, and the best ways to use and present research outside of university. Finally, we asked about their aspirations for research presentation, and the tools that could help improve learning and research outcomes in the future.

section 2

Methodology & demographics

Learning is an important step to making a change. So if we’re interested in how research drives real-world change, we need to understand how those instrumental in making the change will learn from the research that’s been done.

Closing the Impact Gap report is based on two surveys that took place in November and December 2020 and January 2021. The first, carried out on our behalf by OnePoll, targeted 1,000 undergraduates and postgraduates in 10 different countries. The second was a study of 1,500 academic researchers from Emerald’s Literati database, with respondents from over 100 countries worldwide.

Within the academic survey, where there were fewer than 100 people (Australasia, India, and Latin America) findings should only be used as an indicative view. Within the student survey, France, Germany, and UK were combined to group as Europe. Meanwhile, China and Japan have been reported separately (instead of grouped) to emphasise their different views. Within the academic survey, North America includes Canada, whereas the student survey was just USA.

See detailed demographics


Section 3

Key takeaways

There is a general desire for innovation within teaching and research output, but how does this match action? What are the consequences?

Our findings suggest that current research outputs such as the journal article are too long and difficult for students to use effectively for learning and that publishing and funding pressures are thought to be stalling innovation.

Undergraduates, postgraduates and academics generally want change within higher education and believe that research could be made more accessible through greater use of technologies such as videos and animations and being more relevant to the real world.

The report poses four key questions for the stakeholders of research

  1. What are the most effective resources we can provide for teaching and learning that address both students’ and academics’ preferences and needs?
  2. How do we respond to the limits of the research article?
  3. How do we reduce the barriers to innovation?
  4. What does the future of research output look like?

Start reading detailed analysis See the full conclusions

Publish with us

Choose the right home for your research across our journals, books, teaching cases and open access options. Follow our guides and find the right resources to help you submit, publish and promote your work. 

Publish with us