26 February 2014

Africa: How Scientists Can Maximise the Impact of Their Research

Researchers mustn't assume that the 'comms people' will do all the communicating, says Anna Kuznicka-Marry.

Researchers working for a university or research institute may assume that because their organisation employs professional communications staff, there is no need for them to communicate their research. However, research communication is far too important to be left to communicators alone.

Does this mean that we should close communications departments and let researchers speak out? Absolutely not. Neither of these extremes would help communicate science effectively. What is needed is researchers and professional communicators working together as one team to maximise the impact of research communications.

Speaking with authority

Scientists need to have their voices heard beyond the walls of academic institutions - so communication, not just research, should be part of their work.

And who can communicate research better than scientists themselves? They spend years doing their PhDs, then years working in their chosen discipline, often on a very specific problem. That makes them true experts, which translates into credibility in the eyes of the public and allows them to speak with authority on their area of expertise.

People may not trust politicians any more, but, on the whole, they trust scientists. Scientists are seen as knowledgeable and without a hidden agenda. It makes perfect sense for scientists to contribute expert opinions to public debates.

On the other hand, many research institutions employ professional staff to communicate research findings to external stakeholders such as the media, civil society, businesses and decision-makers. So why do scientists themselves need to make the effort?

The reality is that researchers may lack the time to communicate on top of their busy day jobs that might include field work, writing journal articles or teaching. And although they may have something interesting to say, without knowing how to package and present their message, or who to present it to, they may fail to achieve an impact.

It's about teamwork

For effective research communication, scientists and communicators need to work together. Communicators are equipped with technical skills and tools to communicate effectively, but they lack the expert knowledge of the subject matter. They know the how, but not the what. And they do not have the credibility that scientists have - journalists don't want to interview university press officers; they want to hear from the scientists who did the research.

But professional communicators have an important role too. They can help researchers identify whether they have a story to tell, advise them on how to tell it (when, in what shape and form, and so on), and how to carry that message to its intended audience.

For instance, they can advise when to do a press release to promote research findings, when to write a policy brief and when to use Twitter. Each format has its own rules (urgent or less time-sensitive, formal or informal) and is used to reach different audiences.

Finally, communicators can help the researcher stay out of trouble. Scientists may be unaware of potentially controversial or political aspects of their research, for example.

Communicators can also help researchers develop their own voice and engage directly with stakeholders. A researcher wouldn't write a press release, but he or she can successfully tweet or blog if given a few pointers on how to get started.

Closing the communications gap

Last October, I travelled to Morogoro, Tanzania, to meet 15 researchers from four African countries working on research integrating human and animal health as part of the Southern African Centre for Infectious Disease Surveillance.

Together with the centre's communications manager, I ran a communications workshop for the researchers. Over two intense days, we examined issues such as understanding audiences, using plain English, writing for the web, using social media and working with policymakers.

At the beginning, not everyone was convinced. "Why should I be bothering with this?", or "academic journals don't want me to write in plain English", or "I can't possibly reduce my 40-page paper to a 140-character tweet" were some of the reactions.

At the end of the workshop my colleagues were perhaps still a bit sceptical. And two days of writing tweets, didn't transform them into skilled communicators.

But they started appreciating the value of research communications a bit more, they gained confidence to talk about their research in simple terms and they agreed to work more closely with the communications staff at their institutions. The latter was, for me, the best indicator of the workshop's success.

So my message to researchers is: don't just sit there assuming that the 'comms people' will do all the communicating. Speak to your press officer early to let them know what you are working on.

Listen to their advice and use their expertise. They are there to help you. And don't be afraid to talk about your work. Say yes to media interviews, have a go at writing a blog, get that Twitter account. You can do it, and it's worth the effort.

Anna Kuznicka-Marry is communications manager at the London International Development Centre, an interdisciplinary research consortium formed of five colleges of the University of London, United Kingdom. She can be contacted at anna.marry@lidc.bloomsbury.ac.uk and on Twitter @LIDC_UK

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