The EXREL project (Scientific EXellence and socio-economic RELevance of research) seeks to contribute to the academic and policy debates concerning the apparent disconnection between the production of scientific knowledge and its potential use beyond the academic sphere (widely known as the “excellence-relevance gap”).

The gap arises because of the tension that exists when academics seek to create relevant knowledge – namely that it reduces their capacity to also create excellent knowledge, and given increasing pressures upon academics to be excellent, that reduces the incentives academics perceive to create relevant knowledge. The project contributes to this debate by identifying the factors that may contribute to increase or reduce that gap, specifically focusing on those factors related to the ways by which academics carry out research processes (referred to as academic research practices).

EXREL builds its conceptual foundation upon the openness approach, in which academic practices (see Figure 1) are regarded as being more open if they directly use external knowledge (from potential users). In the case of research practices, openness is referred to incorporating non-academic considerations in the different stages of the research process. This implies that, ceteris paribus, open research practices may lead to producing academic knowledge with a higher potential to be taken up by socioeconomic agents, which represents one mechanism for bridging the gap and thereby addressing the tensions of scientific excellence and societal relevance of research.

Figure 1: Stages for open research practices (openness approach)

This project develops an empirical approach to examine the excellence-relevance gap and, in particular, to explore the antecedent conditions of and academic attitudes to open research practices. EXREL takes the context of Spain, a national research system in which there has been a substantive increase in the policy emphasis on creating excellent research, and until very recently no comparable emphasis on developing excellent research and creating societal impact. EXREL also focuses on the field of management, because it is an academic discipline where there are long-standing debates around excellence and relevance and these debates have recently come to the fore.

EXREL uses a mixed methods approach. The empirical study involves interviews with management scholars regarding their attitudes towards creating relevant research and also interviews exploring their experiences in practically balancing excellence and relevance. The project also involves a large-scale survey of management scholars addressing their attitudes to excellence and relevance in research. This primary data is combined with secondary data (such as bibliometric information). With the data gathered, EXREL empirically tests the conceptual model presented in Figure 2.

Figure 2: Conceptual model