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From writing to communicating research and everything in between

Written by Katerina Panagaki,

From graduating school to entering academia I had to adapt my writing style of essays. Not only that, but according to discipline I had to adapt everything from tone to structure. Oh, and depending on the language I was studying in, the writing style was to be adapted further. And then came the peer reviewed scientific articles, which have given requirements of language and structure to an extent, but one still needs to remain flexible and adapt from the structure to the length of the title, and the use of semicolon and subtitles depending on the journal one is hoping to publish in. In other words, an endless story of corrections in red and tracked changes, of comments on the side, and of intricate numbering systems of versions of drafts.

That’s what an academic career entails and it’s a never-ending learning process. It makes sense. You do the work and then you need to write about it so others can benefit from your insights. Yet with time academia is coming to realize that writing a paper doesn’t equal communicating to the world. When you publish in a scientific journal it’s like writing an open letter to the (subscribed) scientific community and if you are lucky someone will read your letter and respond in kind by referencing your work in their own paper a ‘few’ years down the line. As researchers though – whether using public funds or not – we have an ethical responsibility to share our findings with the world and not just a subgroup of subscribers. Could some of the things we work on do more harm than good if shared widely? Something to be debated about in another blog… For this one, the point is academics are now told writing is not enough! What you need to do as well as write is communicate. And you need to do so in a way that you sound interesting, engaging, and fun. You need to do so in a way that your work can be understood and applied by different types of audiences. And you need to do so in ways that allow for feedback, invite questions (that you then try to provide answers to), and that remain accessible in the world-wide-web (www.) eternity. How? Well through blogs, vlogs, podcasts, internal newsletters, news articles and interviews to the media, through Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and the rest of the social media, seminars, webinars and massive open online courses (MOOCs), flyers, infographics, posters, videos and animation. Oh, and dear academic please note this is not an exhaustive list, ideally you should be as creative as you can and then some more ticking off as many of these boxes as possible.

Reality is, communication makes sense! Research is meaningless if it is not being disseminated and proper dissemination means reaching different audiences. But different audiences will access different channels, will focus on different parts of your work and will vary in their preference of products. As a member of the public, I also have my own preferences, which vary depending on the complexity of the topic or even just on the time of the day. The other side of the coin though is, that as an academic I feel overwhelmed and underskilled. Even if I had the ability to produce perfect content in half those formats, how much time and effort should I be putting into learning new software to edit sound, video or produce animations and draw infographics? Is it even possible to run the software I need (after I have managed to secure funding to be able to access the software of course) from my laptop or will that too feel equally overwhelmed and clearly state so with black and blue error screens? “You are on mute” still echoes since lockdown when even the most technology averse were forced to take videocalls. And it wasn’t a small minority that struggled. Not to mention that half the times the issue was genuinely with technology and IT departments were inundated with tickets like never before, i.e. more time spent away from the research we get paid to do trying to get our work tools to do what we need them to…

My sense is, with time we have adapted our expectations and aspirations of communication in research. However, the system, the processes, and the supportive mechanisms required have not adapted accordingly. At least not yet. In most places related to research (of course there are inspirational exceptions we try to study and learn from) the technical support and the actual tools, the comms expertise, the whole backoffice processes, the workload, the time and funds attached to dissemination are remnants of a time when writing was all academics were expected to do and do so on their own. But what about current times of communication and transdiciplinary international research teams? How can we bring forth the changes we need to be able to produce what we should? Sometimes I think we need more experts involved for different parts of the work. Sometimes I think we also need more knowledge brokers, who can help bridge the gap. Other times, I feel courageous and enter steep learning curves of editing software…