Aims: Assessment of the impact of health research is a growing but problematic field. We examined how a combination of approaches might together inform assessment of the impact of a body of diabetes research published in 1981 and help identify factors behind success.
Methods: Three broad approaches were applied to the work of one team leader of acknowledged influence. Standard bibliographic analysis was complemented by a second approach which categorized the importance of the primary publications to the papers citing them, in four domains. In parallel, a third approach involved qualitative assessment using surveys, critical pathway analysis by, and interviews of, co-authors and external experts. Extending the approach incorporated key additional publications from other years.
Results: In 1981, the team leader published 29 papers. Citations to these 29 first generation papers varied from 1 to 76 and resulted in 799 second generation papers. Citations to these produced 12 891 third generation papers. Analysis of second generation papers suggested the cited first generation paper was thought to be of considerable or essential significance in only 9% of cases. While much research made little impact, qualitative analysis included a wealth of information, sometimes missed by standard bibliographic techniques, on where the identified research influenced important streams of clinical development. Analysis covered major research studies (such as the Diabetes Control and Complications Trial), insulin pump therapy, and career development of co-authors.
Conclusions: Understanding the impact of research requires multiple approaches. With refinement, these techniques could be employed more widely and potentially could inform research policy.