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Research dissemination can leave many uninitiated scientists feeling out of their depth. Research Media’s Digital Editor Ben McCluskey offers some insights into the common pitfalls academics encounter and provides a few guidelines for getting research dissemination right
Outreach is a key aspect of attracting industry partners and generally building on the initial success of novel research findings; ultimately, any work conducted with public funds should be pushed to its full potential. However, while some researchers are fortunate to boast excellent communication skills, the two domains of communication and science do not always sit easily alongside one another. There is much debate about whether neuroscientists or materials experts, for example, should be expected to perform the additional role of PR guru for their work, such are the demands of their core role. No matter where you sit on the matter, there are always options to best manage the communication of great science, and I have outlined a few of my experiences in the sector below.
1. Overlooking your audience
- Don’t forget who you are writing for.
One of the first tasks writers at International Innovation (Research Media’s flagship publication) undertake when putting together a feature on a research project is to discern context. This is vital for engaging your audiences (most research requires dissemination to more than one type of audience… more on this below)
Imagine the scene… a researcher has produced countless valuable pages on his investigations of coronal mass ejections, which he wants to promote. But not once among the complex descriptions of magnetised plasma does he explicitly mention the sun. Avoiding this type of dissemination oversight is crucial when engaging with audiences beyond your direct peers. (incidentally, it would be hard to find an opening description of the aforementioned subject that’s more entertaining than this)
- Don’t misuse declarative phrases. Never presume a fact is obvious or clear… obviously
- Many people (not me, honest) read white papers thus: abstract for the method and key points; results for the juicy bits; conclusion to see if I (ahem) they have missed anything
2. Poor presentation of research data
- Make sure graphs do the job they are designed for – setting out data clearly and accurately. Ensure this information is placed in suitable context in the main text, but do not spend paragraphs explaining every aspect of it. Readers will switch off based on the assumption the graph hasn’t done its job
3. Failing to discuss the likely broader impact of research findings or any downsides
- Clear, concise writing and effective communication are essential when attempting to convey the importance and significance of your work to a broader community
- The perfect experiment is often compromised by the realities of life in the lab, a scientist’s duty includes full disclosure of such events… because who knows where the next accidental
innovation may spring from?
Strategies for success
1. Think about the range of media available
- The medium should suit the message, not the other way around. If your story can be told in a visually appealing way, it may be worth considering commissioning a video or infographic to reflect this, but don’t feel this is necessary if the topics you cover are more abstract. Well-conceived press releases or media interviews may be much stronger tools for dissemination if the findings of your work are directed at topical issues of benefit to society
2. Identify the audience, identifying the message
- At the start of a project, researchers already have expectations of outcomes. Achieving maximum impact relies on envisioning who might want to know about these findings, which aspects are most relevant to them, and how they are best reached.
- What type of stakeholders should be targeted?
External: local community, government/decision makers, environmental groups, media
Internal: department staff/heads, project officers, tech transfer officers
Network: potential users, event organisers, libraries, etc.
- What message are they interested in?
The methodology you adopted
- A common mistake is to think that, because the investigation is complex and set within an academic context, the general public will not care, or be able to comprehend the significance of the work. Some researchers are able to tell their story well and have the time to do so, but many have only one, or neither of these luxuries.
If this is the case, it may be worth planning in 3rd party consultancy. Which leads to the final point…
- What type of stakeholders should be targeted?
3. Planning as priority
- Have you prepared a communication strategy and timeline?
- Does communication of the project involve all consortium partners (and their respective staff), i.e. are you only telling a small part of the story?
- Is there awareness that communication is a continuous process, not a one-time effort when the project ends?
- Have resources been allocated to professional assistance with the drafting of press releases, graphic design, maintenance of the website and other communication tasks?
Here at Research Media, for example, we offer translational services that shape research efforts into coherent narratives that appeal to policy makers, industry specialists and the public at large. It is important to ensure your work is accessible beyond your direct peers, and this can include search engine optimised (SEO) websites, video dissemination and concerted social media campaigns that target core audiences.
Ben McCluskey is Digital Editor at International Innovation, a global resource providing insight and analysis on current scientific research trends, as well as funding and policy issues.