Communication

Boosting the #IMPACT of your research

Highly meticulous, data-driven scientific studies and social media content seem to fall at complete opposite ends of the information spectrum. Even when the science is really exciting, the peer-review process seems to remove all broad-reaching appeal from the text. Inevitably, Reviewer 2 will suck every last iota of effort to attract wider interest in the study, with the comment ‘Speculative!’. So sadly, research articles tend to be dry, dense and impersonal. On the flip-side, there is social media. Click into Twitter for a break from the daily grind, and you’re almost guaranteed to be met with an overabundance of in-your-face extreme opinions masquerading as facts behind a cloak of unaccountability. It’s no surprise that these outlets attract very opposite audiences.

Except, maybe they don’t. In fact, it seems that boosting #nonscientificimpact could actually help researchers to also boost their all-important scientific impact. Here’s why…

Scientific impact is incredibly important for researchers. It is used as a distinguishing criterion in gaining and maintaining research jobs, being promoted through the ranks of academia, and for winning competitive funding. One of the key metrics that is often used to gauge scientific impact is citation count, or the number of times a researcher’s work has been referenced in other peer-reviewed articles. Not only is this relevant as a stand-alone measure, but citation count also feeds into other metrics of esteem, such as an individual’s h-index and i10-index.* These metrics are biased and ineffective in being truly comparative for many reasons, yet this sort of detail is still heavily relied on in the various facets of academia.

So how does social (and mainstream) media come into play? Well, fortunately, science for the sake of science is a thing of the past. As a result, now more than ever researchers need to be able to generate and prove that their work will in some way be of value and interest to the real world. And in line with this, metrics that only show the potential of a researcher to disseminate knowledge through the scientific world just don’t cut it anymore. This is where ‘non-scientific impact’ comes in.

Non-scientific impact is generally defined as a research publication’s online footprint. This could be likes and shares on social media platforms, such as Twitter and Facebook, mainstream news coverage, or mentions in online blogs. Quite simply put, this is a measure of the importance of the research to the lay public. Funding bodies, especially publicly funded-funding bodies, now expect researchers to provide proof of their ability to reach public audiences. Metrics on non-scientific impact (such as the Altmetric Attention Score) can come in very handy here.

Generating non-scientific impact can be really daunting for many researchers. This sort of communication not only requires an excellent grasp of the science, but also a really thorough understanding of the non-scientific landscape that the work fits into. Generally, one of these things is far clearer than the other, and therefore easier to tackle. This is understandable, given that it often takes a whole lot of individual studies – often across different disciplines – to be able to genuinely and convincingly answer the tough, big-picture questions that the public tend to ask (which may or may not relate directly to your particular study). Also, in order to really get through to the public in an impactful way, researchers need to add a whole new level of skill: ‘being engaging’ to their communication style repertoire. Unfortunately, this is not often taught in research – although things are changing for the better in this regard.

Engaging broader, non-scientific audiences can definitely be challenging. But if you’re thinking about your career, or winning that next grant, it’s absolutely worth the effort. A recent study published in PLOS ONE found a strong association between the non-scientific impact (e.g. the number of mentions in popular media, including traditional mainstream media, as well as social media platforms) and the scientific impact of research (citations). This study does come with the proviso that there was not a directional link between the two, but if you can manage to get your research into mainstream and social media, you are certainly improving your chances of also generating more scientific interest.

How do you get your research into the media? Here are a few tips:

  • Make your writing accessible and as easy to read as possible:
    • Avoid jargon and acronyms;
    • Use consistent terminology that is broadly understandable (or at least clearly defined);
    • Keep your writing brief;
    • Allow your work to tell a story, complete with a setting for context and narrator, so that it can be easily followed (really!);
    • Link ideas with conjunctions (e.g. ‘therefore’, ‘but’);
    • Use correct punctuation and grammar.
  • Make the effort to really understand and present your work in the context of an [appropriate] real-world application.
  • Don’t wait for the media to come to you – reach out to them! Most institutions have marketing and communications teams, so they should be your first point of contact. If you don’t have access to this sort of support, then do it yourself: develop a brief media release that details your key findings and their ramifications to the broader public, then search for journalists who have reported on similar content previously and contact them. This is your first opportunity to practice engaging and captivating a general audience.
  • Build your (or your research groups’) social media channels, and maintain them! You have to put effort into these for them to generate results. Regularly add content and be sure to engage with and support others, too.

 

As a final note, while scientific impact and popular media impact both have their place and relevance, actual real-world impact is not accounted for by either scientific or non-scientific impact measures. Ironically, the ‘comprehensive’ impacts of scientific studies, which cover the impact of research on the economy, society, culture, public policy/services, health, the environment, and quality of life beyond academia, are hardly ever quantified due to the huge amount of time and resources it takes to fully ascertain and corroborate this information. However, some do exist, for example the UK’s Research Excellence Framework. This type of measure may become more mainstream in the future through more automated methodologies. Until then, you’ll just have to rely on case studies of your work to get this level of impact across.

 

*For those lucky enough to have never needed to care about these metrics previously, ‘a scientist has index h if h of his/her Np papers have at least h citations each, and the other (Np − h) papers have no more than h citations each’ (Hirsch 2005). The definition in itself is clear proof that this is a measure for academic interest only! However, I must say, I love how well it proves the above ‘dry, dense and impersonal’ argument so perfectly! The i10-index is much simpler: the number of publications with at least 10 citations. However, and again true to science, thanks to its simplicity, its value is extremely marginal, especially for comparing more senior researchers.