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Researcher Development

Researcher Development

The fundamentals of research communication

In the previous section, we’ve hopefully established a working definition of research communication.

We’ve established that, at their core, these activities are about us as researchers trying to share our expertise and the findings of our research with people outside of academia.

In this section, we’re going to explore why we might want to get involved in this kind of activity.

Let’s start by turning to what UK Research and Innovation (previously known as Research Councils UK) has to say about the matter. They write that:

‘By establishing an ongoing dialogue between the research community and the public, society can benefit more fully from the outputs of research’.

From UK Research and Innovation’s perspective, research communication is all about breaking down barriers between academia and the rest of society.

For many on the outside, universities and other research institutions can seems fairly opaque. Many non-academics are entirely unaware of the research which is being undertaken within university walls and of the many ways in which that research might impact and benefit their lives.

One reason we might want to get involved in research communication, then, is to help draw back the curtain; to demystify academia and to provide non-academics with the opportunity to find out about what we’re up to.

Some see doing so as a kind of occupational (and perhaps moral) duty. In 2013, for example, Mark Walport, then the UK Government’s Chief Scientific Advisor, made the case that ‘science is not finished until it’s communicated. The communication to wider audiences is part of the job of being a scientist’.

His words might equally apply to non-science disciplines too.

Many of us embark on a research degree because we want to improve our collective understanding of the world. But how “collective” is that understanding if it is confined to the pages of academic journals?

To Walport, and to many others, not participating in some form of research communication is simply not an option; as he sees it, for the discoveries that we’re making to be of value, we need to ensure they’re shared with everyone, not just with other academics.

Some of us, then, might be driven to undertake research communication activity for somewhat idealistic reasons. Nevertheless, developing skills and experience in research communication during your research degree can also have career benefits too.

One key benefit they highlight is that participating in research communication allows a researcher to build a public profile. They provide several examples of scholars who have used research communication activity not only to contribute to the more idealistic goals of engaging the public, but also to establish themselves as an authority in their field, both within academia and outside of it.

Building a profile during your research degree in this way can have considerable career benefits and can broaden your horizons. Establishing yourself as an authority in your field outside of the academic bubble can open up doors for potential careers outside of academia: in journalism, media or consultancy, to name just a few examples.

Yet, even if you are planning on a career in research, having skills and experience in research communication can still be of considerable benefit.

Mark Walport’s view of research communication as being an essential part of being a researcher is an increasingly mainstream position and universities and funding bodies have increasingly sought to encourage researchers to make communicating their work to the general public a central part of what they do.

Researchers with skills and experience in research communication are likely to not only bring prestige to a university or research institution through being a recognised authority in their field outside of academia, then, but also to be a financial benefit through being able to attract more funding.

Whatever your planned career trajectory, developing skills and experience in research communication can be hugely beneficial. And, what better time to develop those skills than during your research degree?

In the previous sections, we’ve established what research communication iswhy we do it and who we do it for.

Before we go any further, it’s worth asking: what makes for “good” research communication?

Particularly if you are thinking about developing your own project, this question is likely to be at the forefront of your mind throughout this resource; you don’t just want to know what research communication is and how you can do it, but how you can do it well.

Unfortunately, there is no one attribute or set of attributes that makes a research communication initiative “good” or not.

In the following portion of this resource, we will look at several examples of well-received digital research communication projects. Yet, you might struggle to find many commonalities between them. The examples we will look at utilise different mediums and vary wildly in their style and presentation.

In order to think about what makes for “good” research communication, then, let’s think about the three “essential ingredients” to any research communication project:

  • You
  • The knowledge you want to share
  • The audience you want to share that knowledge with

What makes a research communication project “good” is not the use of a particular medium or the adoption of a particular style, but how well it serves these three “ingredients”:

  • Does it use your skills (or skills you are seeking to develop) and help you to achieve the personal benefits which you hope to gain from undertaking the project?
  • Is the form of the project appropriate to the knowledge that you are seeking to share?
  • Is the project presented in a manner which is enticing to your intended audience?

Any research communication project should be primarily led by these questions.

In short, what has worked for someone else, their field and their audience won’t necessarily work for you, your field and your audience.

In the rest of this resource, we are going to look at some examples of well-received research communication initiatives and explore several mediums which you might wish to utilise in your projects. In seeking inspiration for your own research communication initiatives, keep these three “ingredients” in mind, as a “good” research communication project will always be one which best works to serve them.

You may also be interested in this episode of the podcast R, D and the In-betweens where Kelly Preece, Head of Academic Development and Skills at the University of Exeter, talks to Dr. Caitlin Kight about storytelling in research communication.

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