In this blog post, we share 5 communication tips for academic researchers.
We sourced these tips from 5 researchers who have published articles in The Conversation.
These are 5 of the 20 researchers we reached out to a month ago to ask for insights.
Communicating research can be an exciting process. It can increase the visibility of new findings, prevent the risk of misinterpretation by the media and lead to meaningful engagement with non-academics, for instance. Above all, it puts researchers in control of the narrative.
A month ago we reached out to 20 researchers who had published articles in The Conversation. We did this because we wanted to get the views of people we had not collaborated with.
We selected authors from The Conversation because we saw it as a sign of someone who’s comfortable with communicating their research beyond academia. In addition, we figured they would have interesting insights and communication tips for academic researchers.
Of the 20, 8 of them replied, with some providing feedback on our Guide to Communicating Research Beyond Academia.
Of the 8 researchers, 5 offered their insights.
Before we jump into the five communication tips for academic researchers, let’s briefly explore why taking a proactive approach to communication can be useful.
Why bother communicating research beyond academia?
First of all, there’s a widespread assumption that innovation is discoverable. However, breakthroughs remain in sad isolation all too often, ignored by peers, industry, potential collaborators and funders.
Second, sometimes research can be misinterpreted by the media. Whether that’s deliberate or accidental, it affects how the public view the findings. By publishing an accessible summary of your work, you give the public access to a narrative that YOU control when they come looking for information.
Third, Ofcom’s Media Use and Attitudes Research demonstrates that people can’t spot fake news. Now more than ever we need reliable evidence on which to base opinions and decisions.
Fourth, if you think your research is important, then you want it to reach those who can do something about it. The world is facing a number of complex and potentially destructive problems requiring collective action. Similarly, we need solid evidence bases.
Finally, academics are under increased pressure from research councils and their institutions to ‘produce’ or prove research impact beyond academia. There’s no simple way to create impact. That said, research is most successful at generating impact opportunities when presented in a straightforward and engaging way, rather than a 120-page report!
Now that we’ve seen why communication matters, here are 5 communication tips for academic researchers that can help you on your own journey.
Communication tips for academic researchers
1. Use accessible language – David Spencer, Professor of Economics and Political Economy, University of Leeds
Academic careers are built on becoming an expert in a certain area. As a result, academics can have difficulty communicating in simple terms to a non-expert audience. Moreover, they may lack the immediate visual communication skills to bring findings to life and to make them more visually appealing.
‘Write in an accessible way and have something interesting to say. Writing for a wider audience can be useful in broadening networks and perhaps developing one’s own research.’
2. Look at the evidence on research communication – Astrid Kause, Research Fellow, University of Leeds
Astrid conducts empirical research on communicating scientific information. Therefore, her advice highlights an evidence-based approach:
‘I recommend communicating research based on empirical research. There are tons of recommendations out there, but only research can tell how good they are (some even contradict gut feelings!).’
Astrid and her team have published ‘A behavioural science approach for evaluating communications about climate related risks and uncertainties‘.
However, the 8 recommendations can be applied to other research areas as well. Most importantly, they contain practical and useful examples. For example, the recommendations range from avoiding expert terminology and acronyms to testing communication materials.
Astrid’s tip was a great pointer in the right direction of science comms evidence. There is an emerging body of literature on science communication.
Lee Constable, science communicator and TV presenter, also highlights this in her fantastically useful Twitter thread (see on the right).
Useful resources that can provide even more communication tips for academic researchers:
1. Journal of Science Communication
2. Twitter account @SciCommPLOS
3. Research shared at this hashtag #scicommevidence
4. Search science communication articles at The Conversation
5. Scicomm Journal Club podcast
— Lee Constable (@Constababble) February 17, 2019
Tip 3. Write in local newspapers – Doug Martin, Course Director, Leeds Beckett University
Doug is a former local authority senior manager and policy writer who has come into academia late in his career. As a result, he understands broader dissemination as opposed to ‘academics simply talking to each other with no difference made’.
‘I want my work to make a difference hence you will see I write in local newspapers occasionally.’
When people were asked what aspect of universities they were interested in, they did not mention research.
However, when prompted on whether they wanted to read more about the research coming out of universities, they expressed interest.
This behaviour demonstrates why writing about one’s research in local media is a good communication tip for academic researchers: it engages the general public and widens the reach of their findings.
Doug has written about the north-south divide in English schools in The Independent.
4. Find a medium that feels comfortable – Jack Holland, Associate Professor in International Relations, University of Leeds
When asked about communication tips for academic researchers, Jack is direct and honest. He highlights that communicating research and engaging with the REF impact agenda is not a must:
‘Don’t let yourself be sculpted by the REF impact agenda. If you’re fundamentally uncomfortable to do it, don’t.’
However, for those interested in engaging wider audiences with their research, Jack outlined four formats for media engagement that offer varying levels of control over one’s messaging: Live TV, Live Radio, opeds and written pieces, and social media. He gave useful insights for each format, as you can see below:
For you if…
You don’t want your words to be edited
You’re concerned about the media spin on your words
Can think on your feet
Line up 3 things you want to get across in an interview (if your brain goes blank)
Wear what your mom would think looks nice
BBC Breakfast is watched by millions
For you if…
You don’t want your words to be edited
You’re willing to reach out to radio teams about your expertise and willingness to be contacted
Reach out to them and offer details and expertise topics
See if there is a link to the radio through your campus
BBC Leeds is good, once they have your number and know that you are reliable
Opeds and written pieces
For you if…
You can write a compelling 500-word piece
You’re prepared to look up the editors and email them directly
Your piece is not time-sensitive
You’re OK with there being no guarantee of publication
Writing in The Conversation may get picked up by the national media
Email the editors directly with your written piece and copy the media team in
For you if…
You want to invest time building a presence online
You’re keen to engage and interact with people online who are interested in your research
Have the same profile picture and username on all platforms, e.g. ‘drjackholland‘
Add relevant keywords in your bio
Use the cover photo as a space to show your willingness with the media, e.g. image from an interview
On the topic of building an online presence, Jack was positive about his experience, encouraging his peers:
‘Early career researchers don’t often think of themselves in terms of external marketing – it’s worth thinking about your online presence.’
5. Write in The Conversation – Mandy Pierlejewski, Senior Lecturer, Leeds Beckett University
Mandy was positive about her experience of writing articles in The Conversation. Moreover, she echoed Jack’s view that articles written in the outlet can be picked up by the national media.
‘I have found that using blog sites such as The Conversation has been the best way to reach a wider audience. The Conversation give support to writers, in the form of editing and advice on style, which I found very helpful. This website is very widely read and each article is freely available for any publisher. This means that your article could be featured in a national newspaper or news website.’
Similarly, the wide reach of the outlet is highlighted by the CEO of The Conversation in our Guide to Communicating Research Beyond Academia (page 25):
‘The Conversation allows academics to share their research and insight directly with the general public, with a monthly audience of 3 million and a network of republishers reaching more than 10 million. Almost 80 UK universities are now members and any academic can pitch to our editors directly‘
In conclusion, these 5 communication tips for academic researchers cover writing style, an evidence-based approach, engaging with the media, assessing available formats (TV, radio, opeds, social media), and, finally, writing in the Conversation.
A special thanks to our generous contributors:
- David Spencer (@Spencer_DavidA)
- Astrid Kause (@AstridBrise)
- Doug Martin (@drdougmartin)
- Jack Holland (@DrJackHolland)
- Mandy Pierlejewski (@MPierlejewski)
If you have any communication tips for academic researchers that you’d like to share, please comment below or tweet at us on @researchretold!