Paradigm Shift in Knowledge Transfer

This blog series provides a step-by-step overview of the Wi4impact research project, which examines the knowledge transfer impact of science blogs and podcasts at German higher education and non-university research institutions. The first blog post presents a brief theoretical introduction to our research topic. The term knowledge transfer is by no means consistent within or outside the academic world. Broadly perceived, it denotes effects of research and science on the non-academic world. In the past, economic, and technological aspects dominated the understanding of knowledge transfer, focusing on natural sciences. Only recently there has been a paradigm shift toward a more societal significance that pays greater attention to social sciences and humanities (SSH). In the context of the umbrella term third mission, policy makers request forms of academic evaluation in all fields, which poses the question of how to measure the impact of knowledge transfer. The blog post proposes a set of definitions underlying a study of the impact of digital transfer media.

Diese vierteilige Blogreihe gibt einen schrittweisen Einblick in das Forschungsprojekt Wi4impact, in dem die Wissenstransferleistung von Wissenschaftsblogs und -podcasts deutscher Hochschulen und Forschungseinrichtungen untersucht wird. Im ersten Beitrag geben wir eine kurze theoretische Einführung zum Untersuchungsgegenstand. Der Begriff „Wissenstransfer“ wird innerhalb und außerhalb der akademischen Welt keineswegs einheitlich verstanden. Weit gefasst bezeichnet er die Wirkung von Forschung und Wissenschaft aus der akademischen Welt heraus. In der Vergangenheit dominierten wirtschaftliche und technologische Perspektiven das Begriffsverständnis, wobei das schwerpunktmäßige Interesse auf den Naturwissenschaften lag. Erst in jüngster Zeit zeichnet sich ein Paradigmenwechsel hin zu einer gesellschaftlichen Bedeutung ab, die den Sozial- und Geisteswissenschaften (GSW) größere Aufmerksamkeit schenkt. Unter dem Oberbegriff „Third mission“ fordert die Politik Formen der wissenschaftlichen Evaluation von allen Disziplinen ein, was die Frage aufwirft, wie die Wirkung von Wissenstransfer konkret gemessen werden kann. Der Blogbeitrag schlägt Definitionen vor, die einer Studie zum Impact von digitalen Transfermedien zugrunde liegen.

DOI: 10.34879/gesisblog.2023.72

The inconsistent use of the term knowledge transfer can be explained by its referential complexity and field-specific perspectives of the past. In an Aristotelian approach, knowledge transfer can be understood as a functional way of sustaining knowledge, for example driven by teaching and continuing education, academic publications, technological innovation, or engagement with non-academic actors. Furthermore, there is a normative reading of knowledge transfer as a basic human need for self-empowerment according to Humboldt and Kant.1 In this context, knowledge transfer is always attributed a positive intention. However, more recent discussions point out that knowledge transfer can also lead to negative and unintended effects, as described within the concept of “Grimpact”.2 Through a specific reference frame of digital transfer media, the terms knowledge transfer and impact, which are often used synonymously in the literature, will be differentiated from each other.

Advanced Conceptual Understanding over Time

The sources of knowledge transfer are research universities, universities of applied sciences, and non-university research institutions, such as the German Max Planck Society or the Leibniz Association. In Germany, knowledge transfer has been declared a political goal since the mid-1970s. During that period, it aimed at strengthening university-based regions through technology transfer. Accordingly, knowledge transfer initially referred to patent licensing, spin-offs, and start-ups. As a result of the political requirement, many universities set up transfer offices to support scientists in networking with the industry.3 In this context, academic organizations were described as multi-product enterprises in whose product portfolio knowledge transfer has risen from being a co-product to being the main product of research and teaching.4 Much sooner than in Germany, the international discourse provided a more comprehensive multi-layered understanding of knowledge transfer that also addressed the wider public sector. Ever since, it focuses on the “transfer of know-how, expertise, skills” rather than only on economic metrics.5

Construed as third mission, knowledge transfer has gained new political relevance in the early 2010s. As such, it can be seen as a call to science to actively contribute to solving current societal and economic challenges. Within the European policy requirement in 2011, knowledge transfer subsumes all activities with non-scientific actors that are intertwined with the performance dimensions of research and teaching.6 In this discussion, social sciences and humanities (SSH) receive greater importance prioritizing relational and collaborative activities, such as political consultancy and contract research.7 This broad understanding has led to the emergence of three fields of knowledge transfer: commercialization and exploitation of academically generated knowledge, utilization of theoretical knowledge, and knowledge transfer from higher education and research institutions into society and public policy.8 Scientific actors involved in transfer centers prioritize exchange with society (science-to-public), followed by knowledge transfer within the scientific community (science-to-science), and groups of people who implement or apply the knowledge practically (science-to-professionals).9 The study shows that the scientific background of the scientists strongly influences their priorities. For scientists working in SSH, industry, and economy are therefore less important to the transfer of knowledge.

Within the Wi4impact study conducted at GESIS, which examines digital transfer media, effective knowledge transfer aims to ensure that individuals or society benefit from research-based knowledge. According to Nagy et al. (2020)10, three phases of the transfer process are taken into consideration: 1) appropriate preparation and translation of results, 2) identification and strengthening of intermediaries and institutions, and 3) interaction with target contexts and appropriation of results. In line with the state of research, the study integrates transfer activities addressed to both scientific and non-scientific audiences of all research fields.

Measurable impact of knowledge transfer

„The significance of an impact can be defined as the magnitude, or intensity of the effect of research on individuals, groups or organisations“.11 Measuring the impact of knowledge transfer creates several challenges. To name but one, the results of knowledge transfer usually appear „distant from research activities“,12 which complicates conclusions about a direct correlation.13 The political context of a country determines the focus of knowledge transfer. Accordingly, several frameworks exist designed to capture knowledge transfer in a measurable way. One established approach is the German Transfer Barometer, which classifies eight fields of transfer activities: Research-based collaboration and utilization; relationship management; research infrastructure; entrepreneurship; transfer-oriented teaching, and continuing education; research-based consulting of decision-makers and stakeholders; research, and development with society; and scientific dialogue.14

In the UK higher education sector, the knowledge exchange framework (KEF) stresses the relevance of engagement, which is based on communicative comprehension. The KEF builds on a set of seven metrics: research partnerships; working with business; working with the public and third sector; skills, enterprise, and entrepreneurship; local growth and regeneration; intellectual property (IP), and commercialization.15 This inclusive approach anticipates two directions in accordance with the addressees of knowledge transfer: the scientific (other frameworks name research) impact, as well as the economic (other frameworks add political) and societal impact. In the course of knowledge transfer’s rethinking in favor of SSH, Muhonen et al. (2020)16 develop a typology of twelve impact pathways that focuses solely on the latter level: the exchange between science and society. Depending on the magnitude of the impact, these pathways are ordered and can be subdivided into four categories: dissemination, cocreation, reacting to social change, and driving societal change by building new epistemic communities.

Within the Wi4impact study, we understand impact as the measurable effect achieved by research-based knowledge transfer activities. Embedded in a digital media production environment, impact is placed at the end of a knowledge transfer process (input, output, outreach/performance, impact), which is empirically captured in its entirety. Rather than focusing on a long-term perspective, the study describes a status quo of digital transfer activities and measures the impact at two points in time in order to provide insights into apparent developments. Networking and collaboration serve as the impact indicator, which can potentially touch upon all eight fields characterized within the German Transfer Barometer. Following the aforementioned knowledge transfer understanding, two levels of impact are to be distinguished: societal (science-to-public, science-to-professionals) and scientific impact (science-to-science).

More information on the project “How knowledge matters in the context of digitization (Wi4impact) – Impact analysis of science blogs and podcasts of German research universities, universities of applied sciences, and non-university research institutions.” can be found here:


  1. Ruser, A. (2021). Wissenstransfer. In T. Schmohl & T. Philipp (Eds.), Handbuch Transdisziplinäre Didaktik (pp. 407–416). transcript Verlag.
  2. Derrick, G. E., Faria, R., Benneworth, P., Pedersen, D. B., & Sivertsen, G. (2018). Towards characterising negative impact: Introducing Grimpact. Proceedings of the 23rd International Conference on Science and Technology Indicators, 2018-09–11, 1199–1213.
  3. Siegel, D. S., Veugelers, R., & Wright, M. (2007). Technology transfer offices and commercialization of university intellectual property: Performance and policy implications. Oxford Review of Economic Policy, 23(4), 640–660.
  4. Markman, G. D., Siegel, D. S., & Wright, M. (2008). Research and Technology Commercialization. Journal of Management Studies, 45(8), 1401–1423.
  5. Heide, S. van der, Sijde, P. C. van der, & Terlouw, C. (2008). The institutional organisation of knowledge transfer and its implications. Higher Education Management and Policy, 20(3), 1–13.
  6. Finne, H., Day, A., Piccaluga, A., Spithoven, A., Walter, P., & Wellen, D. (2011). A Composite Indicator for Knowledge Transfer.
  7. Olmos-Peñuela, J., Castro-Martínez, E., & D’Este, P. (2014). Knowledge transfer activities in social sciences and humanities: Explaining the interactions of research groups with non-academic agents. Research Policy, 43(4), 696–706.
  8. Hayden, M. C., Petrova, M. K., & Wutti, D. (2018). Direct associations of the terminology of knowledge transfer – Differences between the social sciences and humanities (ssh) and other scientific disciplines. Trames. Journal of the Humanities and Social Sciences, 22(3), 239–256.
  9. Hayden, M. C., Petrova, M. K., & Wutti, D. (2018). Direct associations of the terminology of knowledge transfer – Differences between the social sciences and humanities (ssh) and other scientific disciplines. Trames. Journal of the Humanities and Social Sciences, 22(3), 239–256.
  10. Nagy, E., Ransiek, A., Schäfer, M., Lux, A., Bergmann, M., Jahn, T., Marg, O., & Theiler, L. (2020). Transfer as a reciprocal process: How to foster receptivity to results of transdisciplinary research. Environmental Science & Policy, 104, 148–160.
  11. Reed, M. S., Ferré, M., Martin-Ortega, J., Blanche, R., Lawford-Rolfe, R., Dallimer, M., & Holden, J. (2021). Evaluating impact from research: A methodological framework. Research Policy, 50(4), 104147.
  12. Reale, E., Avramov, D., Canhial, K., Donovan, C., Flecha, R., Holm, P., Larkin, C., Lepori, B., Mosoni-Fried, J., Oliver, E., Primeri, E., Puigvert, L., Scharnhorst, A., Schubert, A., Soler, M., Soòs, S., Sordé, T., Travis, C., & Van Horik, R. (2018). A review of literature on evaluating the scientific, social and political impact of social sciences and humanities research. Research Evaluation, 27(4), 298–308.
  13. Bornmann, L. (2013). What is societal impact of research and how can it be assessed? A literature survey. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 64(2), 217–233.
  14. Frank, A., Lehmann-Brauns, C., Lohr, F., Meyer-Haake, A., & Riesenberg, D. (2022). Transferbarometer: Executive Summary.
  15. Johnson, M. T. (2022). The knowledge exchange framework: Understanding parameters and the capacity for transformative engagement. Studies in Higher Education, 47(1), 194–211.
  16. Muhonen, R., Benneworth, P., & Olmos-Peñuela, J. (2020). From productive interactions to impact pathways: Understanding the key dimensions in developing SSH research societal impact. Research Evaluation, 29(1), 34–47.

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