Tom Kirk is the Faculty of Education’s Communications Manager. His role emphasises research communications, which involves publicising research through both traditional news outlets and digital media with the broad aim of widening its reach and (hopefully) its impact on society. This includes helping researchers – including research students – to reinterpret their work for non-academic audiences, work with journalists, and make meaningful use of tools such as specialist websites, blogs, and podcast, video, and social platforms. Here, he describes some potential benefits of communicating research more widely, as well as a few of the challenges involved – and how to navigate them.
For graduate students, what are the benefits of publishing in places other than academic journals?
Academic papers are often pretty difficult to access, and not always widely read. While the perceived ‘benefits’ depend on what type of researcher you want to be, if you want your work to make a meaningful difference, you usually need to influence a community beyond the handful of scholars working in your area. That means supplementing peer-reviewed publications with some form of wider engagement by publishing elsewhere, which is what research communications is all about. ‘Publishing’ in this context can mean many things: contributions to blogs and websites, social media activity, podcasting, making short videos, traditional media work, and more.
[I]f you want want your work to make a meaningful difference, you usually need to influence a community beyond the handful of scholars working in your area.
The argument that research communication is worthwhile because it extends the reach of ideas and thus positively influences wider society certainly motivates me, as well as (encouragingly) a lot of Faculty researchers. From a pragmatic point of view, however, good research communications can expose your work to funders, academic partners, potential collaborators, and policy-makers; for example, researchers and institutions often find that having an easy-to-digest summary of their work online acts as a useful point of reference when applying for funding. Equally, various forms of communication can help researchers broaden their network within the academy, especially across disciplinary boundaries.
These are all important and valid arguments, but I think that universities need to get better at considering why we should communicate research in the context of their social mission (TL:DR: we’re a public service; it’s not a private sector branding exercise). The impetus for that will likely come from the next generation of scholars – our research students. While it’s necessary and good to do research communications for pragmatic reasons, fundamentally, I’d like you to do it to achieve impact with a small ‘i’. Notwithstanding this, it can also be of some ancillary use if you’re aiming for ‘Impact’ in the REF-approved sense, too.
What are some of the challenges involved in more widespread publishing?
The range of tools we have to communicate research has expanded so much over the past 15 years, which is both blessing and curse. On the one hand, researchers can now reach audiences far more easily than when the main outlets of communication were journals and traditional media. On the other, reaching audiences in big numbers is now more difficult: traditional media outlets have less capacity to cover academic research, and social media corporations generally have a morally-void take on publishing. Collectively, this means that a lot of researchers who may feel that they are getting themselves ‘out there’ aren’t really achieving an awful lot.
The challenges are, in many ways, the same as ever: being clear about who you want to reach and why, and learning to communicate your research in a focused, sustained, and targeted way. If you’re not an academic celebrity – and even most people with that title are not – it’s crucial to think about which people or organisations will help you get your work in front of the audiences and communities you’re trying to influence. Just starting a blog, or sticking something on Twitter, won’t achieve much by itself.
Doing this stuff also won’t always turn out the way you expect, either. Even if you are self-publishing on a blog or social media, it’s possible that material may be recycled out of context. One interesting consequence of the proliferation of digital platforms is that content has the potential to endure and be dug up again years later. In other words, be careful what you post now, because it may come back to haunt you. Don’t let this put you off, however: communicating research is broadly ‘a good thing’, but it helps to get guidance and support from a trusted source of expertise – such as your friendly Faculty research communications manager. Just plucking an example out of nowhere.
What common mistakes do early career researchers make when communicating research for a non-specialist or broader audience?
In general, exactly the same mistakes as old researchers! It’s really important not to get hung up on what might go wrong. Good communication should be encouraged, and outcomes are sometimes difficult to gauge.
It’s really important not to get hung up on what might go wrong.
The key thing that most people get wrong is not thinking carefully about their intended audience. Academic writing naturally presumes a level of knowledge on the part of the reader; for non-academics you have to adjust assumptions about what people know or expect. Some researchers will ignore this and default to impenetrable jargon. Others will insist on using information which they have decided their target audience will find irresistible based on judgements untroubled by actual evidence.
Suffice to say that non-academic audiences rarely care (or know) about interdisciplinarity, and have never heard of the famous academic who is giving the keynote at your conference. Oh, and don’t editorialise, especially not in a sensationalist way: research is rarely ‘game-changing’, ‘trailblazing’, or the ‘holy grail’ of anything. Play it cool and let the audience make those judgements for themselves.
How do you help people shift their writing style from “academic” to something with more “general” appeal?
There are lots of tactical, journalistic tips to help people get started. Favourites include covering the five W’s (who, what, when, where, why); or thinking about what you would say first if you were trying to get your mates to take an interest in your research. Whatever that is, it’s normally your opening line. (Obviously this second tactic doesn’t work if your only friends are social scientists… but you get the picture.)
One tip: writing about research for a less-initiated audience tends to involve turning the ‘academic paper’ sequence of ideas upside down. The killer take-away is often in the results or conclusion, and not infrequently in the very last line. When writing for a broader audience, you need to put that stuff up front. How are you suggesting that we address inequalities in education? What does your curricular assessment actually mean for pupils, teachers and schools? Answering this type of question in the opening paragraphs will generally make for a better piece of public-facing content.
What should a student do if approached by a journalist about their research? Are there risks associated with that kind of publicity?
Two basic rules here. First, if you’re anything other than supremely confident about what you’re doing – and generally even if you are – seek guidance from a communications person. Secondly, don’t hang around. Few reporters operate on luxurious deadlines such as, er, maybe later this week. Usually, they will want a response within the next few hours, or less.
The risks completely depend on the context. There are some truly excellent reporters who really care about improving education and may want to tap into your expertise. Some, however, won’t see anything unethical in approaching you with an already-prepared story, and distorting a fragment of your conversation to fill in a gap.
Working with the media can be a tremendous opportunity to extend the reach of your ideas or scholarship.
Again, this shouldn’t put you off. Working with the media can be a tremendous opportunity to extend the reach of your ideas or scholarship. But, for all sorts of reasons, the day a journalist calls may not be the appropriate time to engage. I would strongly recommend that any academic who hasn’t done this several times before seeks advice from a communications professional (hello again) before they jump in. Those of us working in research communications are – as the title suggests – basically here to facilitate engagement with research. We just want you to do it with an eye on the consequences for public understanding, not to mention your own career.
You can reach Tom at firstname.lastname@example.org.