The concept of enhancing scientific research impact through better communication is not new. But with papers still in keeping with the old formatting, there is increasing demand to find new ways of getting important points across...and the answer lies in marketing.
We spoke to Vicky Williams, Chief Exec of Research Media to find out more about how they are helping researchers achieve impact through new media.
SD: Thanks for joining us Vicky! Can you start off by telling us a bit about how you came to be CEO of Research Media?
VW: My background is in scholarly publishing - I worked for Research Media's parent company Emerald Group for about 13 years - so I was used to working with very traditional media - journals, books, monographs. We were aware though that lots of scholarly output hadn’t changed for about 350 years - they're still really text heavy, black and white, visually limited, with low levels of interactivity - and so we knew there was a growing need for researches to communicate their research in new and different ways. So when Research Media was up for sale at 2 and a half years old, despite not really fitting with our original acquisition roadmap, we felt it certainly aligned with our publishing philosophy and so we bought it. We decided though to keep it separate from the parent company brand so it could tread its own path even after acquisition.
SD: What does new and different ways mean to Research Media?
VW: Well when we acquired Research Media, it was actually mainly a publication - so it used to work with individual researchers to help them produce lay summaries of their work. It would be a 2-4 page summary, very visual, and would be distilled for a non-expert audience. We'd work on editorial and design in tandem with the researcher and then we'd disseminate that research into a print publication and an online platform. But since acquiring, we looked at the market need and found it made more sense to work at an institutional level as opposed to a researcher level, and we grew from just being lay summaries to various different media. So we've grown our written media to include policy briefs, blogs and annual reports, but where we've seen the most growth is in our illustrative and design arm. There's much more demand for strong visually engaging pieces, like infographics, bespoke illustrations, animation, video. People are really tuning into the fact that visual media can create really strong engagement. It's quite difficult to actually translate and transform a very dense paper into a 2 minute animation, but the engagement and impact it gets - especially in our era of broader formats of communication - far outweighs the traditional methods of scholars.
SD: So how do you take a complex paper and distill it into something simple like an animation or an infographic? Is it about having designers with deep knowledge of the topic, or about working so closely with the researcher that you can tease out the right insights?
VW: Infographics require a deep understanding of the subject - we have both an editorial and a design team. The former has a mix of backgrounds, some are quite journalistic, many have Masters or PhDs, and some have actually studied science communication specifically. It's impossible to create a team who are expert in every area of scientific research - but instead, they are expert communicators. So the editorial team is the first port of call to translate the research - they read the material sent by researcher and they have open dialogue from researcher. They then brief into the design team whether it's an infographic or a storyboard for animation or whatever they see fit. The design team, who also have a range of backgrounds but all with a specialism in science communication, have immersed themselves in the STEM sector so are very able to strongly inquire about given areas, and tease out the right nuggets which help to create engagement. The researcher is super involved throughout - the last thing we want to do it dumb down (which unfortunately is what happens with much of science communication), and we believe that's the best solution.
SD: It sounds like you guys are pairing consulting with execution - how do you explain the importance of process behind design to those without experience in that industry? The creative industries tend to be quite undervalued by those on the outside..!
VW: It's a massive challenge – research communication still has to prove itself to the wider community in terms of how crucial it is to get right. There is a whole little industry growing which is disrupting scholarly output - or at least complementing it - but we've still got a lot of educating to do, and a lot of proving value. For those researchers not used to working with marketers, it's hard. Once they see the finished piece, they can see the value, but explaining the process at the outset can be a challenge - the assumption is that this can be knocked up in a day. So it's a job for us in terms of brand building and working hard to shift the landscape. The value is proven in terms of engagement statistics but even in quite qualitative stories that come with this kind of outreach and communication activity. We're finding that researchers are now reaching people they wouldn’t ordinarily get to. It feels like true impact when a member of the public comes back to you to say they've stumbled upon your work on YouTube or Instagram, and it's really helped them understand some health issue or some policy question. Sometimes when people talk about impact, they think it means having a huge audience - I think it's more about being clear about what you want your research to achieve, and then targeting it properly - both in terms of audience but also in terms of the medium which you choose.
SD: It seems like there need to be an attitude shift. Impact is more than citations, it encompasses whether it resonates with the audience.
VW: You know, as a consumer, immediately whether something is going to engage you. It's meant to hit you within the first few sentences. Is the science explained clearly, does it have a good title? We can't explain everything fully but we can provide enough information to help you work out if you want to find out more. Funders, industry partners and policy makers will not read a journal article as they don’t have the time, so scientists need to ensure their message is made succinctly and in an engaging way. And doing that is a skill that should be valued within the scholarly communication chain.
SD: So how do you create scale? How can everyone reap the benefits of better design and communication for their work?
VW: There's a real opportunity for the scholarly communications chain to really join up. Why aren’t primary publishers offering this service to their authors? Or what about post- and pre- publication services? Yes, the traditional format still exists, but there all these ancillary services that could be added on. There's an educational piece that a lot of Universities are starting to jump on, particularly in North America. There are SciComm courses and spinoff groups to help with public outreach activity. The younger research community will drive this change regardless, as they're used to communicating through social channels, they're used to using a more informal tone, they use lots of different styles when they communicate, and they're much more succinct in what they say. The skills are starting to be born with our digital natives, so the transformation is happening..!