Academics and alchemists: hitting gold in research dissemination

These days, dissemination of academic research is a core part of any academics’ responsibilities, often with little resource to help. How do you do yours? And how does it all really work?

In an age of open access, social media, and impact case studies, the pressure is on not just to publish, but to use your work to influence policymakers, practitioners and the public. Of course, in striving to reach the widest possible audience, what you don’t want to see is distorted or inaccurate representations of your years of painstaking toil. Even your own university can stuff things up – this BMJ paper found that academic press releases were rife with exaggerated claims, amplified further by the media’s reporting. Not knowing where to start, fear of being misrepresented, and feeling like you have nothing important to say can cause many of us not try at all. Importantly, few of us have dedicated communications teams to help us outside of major news events, and so we’re also left to fend for ourselves in an area where many feel distinctly uncomfortable. Whilst you might not quite magic up the Philosopher’s Stone (the ultimate goal that alchemists dreamed of), just five small actions can help you better engage with those for whom your research is relevant and useful.

At this point it’s confession time: I am still searching for the hidden alchemical formula by which I can take a complex research paper and turn it into a catchy-yet-accurate golden soundbite for the wider public. I am, however, firmly committed to attempting this art. As a publicly funded researcher I have a staunch and genuine belief that I should “try to get the message out there”. By way of full disclosure, I also have a background in public relations and, additionally, maintain fully delusional thoughts that my research will lead to every patient in the UK finally receiving miraculously perfect health care. A driving force for this blog, of course, is so that we can reach a more diverse audience than the three readers of the East Anglian Journal of Fabulous Health Services Research.  However, the art of transmuting data is a skill I have yet to hone: perhaps when my hand is wizened and burnt from years of academic toil I might be able to chuck out profound yet accessible bon mots with which to grip any audience, but I’m not there yet. I get particularly stumped with how to remain truthful to the data, accurately depicting my findings, whilst putting across a simple enough story that it sparks interest from anyone who happens to be passing by. In fact, it was wrestling with this exact difficulty that led to this blog post, which on my to do list was in fact supposed to be a summary of a particularly head-scratching patient experience study, explained in a jaunty-yet-accurate fashion for all you lovely readers. Well, I got stuck with that one, so now we’re all stuck with what came out instead: my ruminations on the purpose and methods of knowledge exchange. And here we go back to basics. Firstly, that in spite of the challenges, this is something we all can and should try out, even if it takes us a while to get anywhere near the right formula. And secondly, that I can offer five simple key steps you can go through to achieve this. So, if you’ve got a paper under review or in press, why don’t you:

  1. Define your audiences. Who might be interested in what you have to say? There might be relevance across lots of different sectors – we often brainstorm those in academia, policy, practice and the public realm, but you could have something to say to commerce too. Think about what your goal is in reaching them (these goals might vary according to the audience), and how you might reach them. Scribble down a list.
  2. Outline your messages. These are likely to be different – what you want to let policymakers know about your work could have a different focus from what you feel you should tell the public. Some ideas to help you think about this:
    • What is your SMIT (single most important thing)?
    • What is your BLAM (bottom line actionable message)?
    • Rule of 3: you can only say  three sentences. What would they be?
  3. Consider what feedback you might want. Do you want to just let people know about your work, or do you want to engage in dialogue about it and what it means for your audiences? How might you go about using any feedback you get?
  4. Decide the methods. Different audiences might need different approaches. Who uses Twitter? Reads blogs? What about lay summaries, briefing papers, workshops, data visualisations, press releases (if accurate…)? Video abstracts? Think creatively! Maybe your work really does need a modern dance choreographed around it…
  5. Measure impact. What might success look like? Might you monitor your Altmetrics or, on a really big story, count up the national newspaper coverage you get (I’ve never had to do this one, I must say)?

You might not do all of these things. That’s OK. Next time you have a paper published, just try one thing, even if it’s a quick email to collaborators with your paper attached. I can’t promise you’ll instantly see a major policy shift. Like anything in research, the long and winding path from research data to transformational change is tough, and mostly shrouded in mist. Unlike alchemists, who frankly were never going to get that far with their “lead to gold” endeavours, I have however seen glimpses of the grand goal in front of us. I am afraid to reveal at this point that it doesn’t start with a press release. Watching my older and better research comrades get gigs giving advice to various policy officials, sitting on important committees, and even – for the anointed ones – getting an audience with the Secretary of State for Health, I know that true influence in academia comes from simply being seen as “an authority”. This takes years of commitment, stacks of research papers, and a smooth way in negotiating the corridors of power. But if you start now, with that one email or blog post, you’ll be on the right path.

For more on these five steps to impact, go look up our quick PDF guide on Knowledge Exchange for Busy Researchers.

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  • The Cambridge Centre for Health Services Research (CCHSR) is a thriving collaboration between the University of Cambridge and RAND Europe. We aim to inform health policy and practice by conducting research and evaluation studies of organisation and delivery of healthcare, including safety, effectiveness, efficiency and patient experience.