Kadoorie Centre Critical Care Research Blog: February 2017
This month Julie Darbyshire, Research Programme Manager for the Critical Care Research Group, writes about the importance of publicising research.
Traditionally, the focus for researchers has been the peer-reviewed results publication written at the end of the project. The sign of a distinguished academic has always been a long CV of highly cited publications, signifying a productive career. The hope always that a publication would be "the next big thing" and change the world. Unfortunately with so many journals in circulation, for most publications the old academic joke that only the authors and the editor have read it may, sadly, be true. Of course, the reality is that it rarely takes just one set of results to make a difference. Each publication is perhaps more a tiny step forward along the pathway to understanding, and it is only really though evidence synthesis and meta-analysis that any true sense can be gleaned from the myriad of research results.
The current drive to ensure all clinical trials are both registered and reported (see Alltrials) suggests that almost half of all research projects are not published. A recent publication that focused on Oxford-based studies found similar results - that just over half were published, but only about a quarter within the recommended year following completion.
It is rare to find a researcher who does not want to publish but the conflicting demands associated with the constant need to secure funding for the next project and ensure continued salaries for the research team are not insignificant. The publication process itself can be protracted and drawn-out, frequently taking longer than six months from acceptance to publication. And this is after the potential frustrations of rejections and re-submissions to find that all-important 'home' for your dearly-beloved project. By the time publication is a reality, the next project is usually well underway, some of the original research team may have moved on, and it is not uncommon for researchers to be sick of the sight of what was once their reason to get up in the morning.
The newly emerging requirement for research is "impact". Formally this is defined by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) as "an effect on, change, or benefit to the economy, society, culture, public policy, or service, health, the environment, or quality of life beyond academia." In other words, making a difference.
Effecting change takes time. A long time. It is understandable therefore that in this era of austerity funding bodies are keen to monitor returns to justify investment, and "impact" is a way to measure effect.
Specifically "impact" is not something that the individual researcher, or research group, can achieve. We can only encourage others, and maximise our routes, or pathways, to impact. Which brings us back to the need to publish.
With the plethora of journals and publications vying for attention, the need to signpost research through other means is becoming more and more important. Key research publications are now often accompanied by a press release, and most researchers active on social media will advertise both their publications and associated news items to reach a wider audience.
Wider dissemination of research activities may include media appearances, blogs, podcasts, and public engagement events as well as Twitter and Facebook feeds. There is of course no substitute for research excellence, and non-academic publications should always have science at their heart. But academics need to recognise that writing for the public audience is not the same as writing papers for the scientific press. There are new skills which need to be learned, practiced, and honed; and speaking to the press (radio or TV interviews) is a whole other kettle of fish which can lead to opening a can of worms if done badly! Even experienced communicators get it wrong sometimes. Here is Dame Sally Davies talking about the cancer risks associated with alcohol consumption. Of course, it is worth remembering that communication is a two-way process and reporters rarely have a scientific background. It can be helpful to ask for a near-final proof to fact-check. Sometimes there is nothing you can do. These days most universities provide some form of media training for their research community - check with your local training and development team who will be able to point you in the right direction.
Once you have embarked on the journey to share your research with the rest of the world it is important to keep a record of activities. Most grant awards require regular reporting and these often ask for details of 'knowledge exchange' and if you can't remember what you've done, you can't complete that section of the report. There are many ways to track publications, ranging from a pen and notebook to automated digital collection. There are several apps that can be set up to help you. IFTTT (if this, then that) will interact with common social media apps to collate activity into one stream which you can then refer to at a later date. Pocket, Slack, Todoist, and Evernote are all useful productivity tools that will help you organise your digital life. This is not an exhaustive list - there are many others.
There are some things to bear in mind when engaging with social media, perhaps more so for the clinical community where there may be unintended consequences of comments and interactions. The Royal College of Nursing debated this issue in 2011. It is considered good practice to differentiate personal and professional accounts although it is important to realise that these will never be truly separate. Perhaps the best advice is to become familiar with the environment before launching in, and be constantly aware that all content is public. Many guidelines advocate never posting anything, anywhere, that is not 'office appropriate'.
Using social media to live-tweet from conferences can be an excellent route to share findings with the outside world but it is important to bear in mind whether information presented is embargoed and/or confidential. Here are some tips to help you get started!
Those not comfortable with full engagement with social media might be happier with LinkedIn and ResearchGate. Both allow information sharing and networking capabilities which can help spread the word about your research activities. The Conversation is a platform which advocates 'academic rigour, journalistic flair'. It has a breadth of subject matter, accepts contributions from a broad range of and attracts a wide following (its sibling @ConversationUK has 72,600 followers - this is unarguably instant access to more people to see your results than would read your publication in the Journal of Nobody Cares, or who will come to listen to your presentation at the Conference of <Insert Specialist Subject Here>).
A final point about maximising impact potential is that thinking about possibilities as early as possible will always be a good thing. Include an impact plan in your grant application and revise opportunities throughout your project. Find people who can help you refine your aims, and share your outcomes. Knowledge exchange requires a network of people with whom to share information and encourage discussion and interaction. All too often the scientific community has been accused of secrecy and operating within silos. This has led to a culture of self-promotion and intra-disciplinary congratulationism. This sort of activity does nothing to effect change, or make a difference. There is now a clear direction within academia towards inter-disciplinary research. The challenges of learning subject-specific short-hand to achieve group understanding are not dissimilar to being able to communicate science to the public audience. It is important to remember that even experts in their own topic are non-specialists in your field.
The best route to achieving impact and truly making a difference to the world is likely to be through collaboration and openness. Make friends and influence! Above all, learn to explain what you do to your granny!
NDCN Communications Officer talk 'Working with the Media' (Oxford SSO login required)
Julie Darbyshire, Critical Care Research Programme Manager