Making your research accessible

Some impacts of communication are so elusive: Facebook and beyond

By 12 June 2012

By Allison Stevens*

There are so many wonderful online tools to help communicate knowledge generated by researchers. As a consequence we always have to try to communicate with people using the online tools that they prefer to use.  That is why here in South Africa at the  Health Economics Unit we started a Facebook page 3 months ago.

A couple of weeks after launching our Facebook page, a colleague of mine notified me that one of her Master’s students had an article published in a newspaper in Malawi. Seemed like a really interesting piece of news to put on Facebook, so it got posted.

Later, there was a comment about this Facebook post from a lecturer in Denmark where she mentioned that she would use this in her postgraduate teaching as an example for students about how to disseminate research findings.

This was useful feedback for purposes of trying to figure out whether or not Facebook is an effective tool in reaching people interested in our work and what they did with that information. To learn more, we could of course have contacted her directly to find out what happened after she told her class about this Malawian student. Perhaps she would have said that her students responded well and asked for the web link. But what happened after this? What if there were other spinoffs that happened that she didn’t know about?

For example, suppose one of her students shared the article with a friend in another university somewhere in Africa. That friend then read the article and developed an interest in what the Malawian student was saying and eventually did a dissertation in the same research area. What if that dissertation was so good that it became published in journals, translated into policy briefs, and communicated to policy-makers (and of course, the media) – but only years later?

Perhaps there are sometimes many elusive effects of communication activities – even for a relatively small activity (like 1 Facebook posting). Understanding this elusive aspect is an important part of appreciating how wide the impact net needs to be cast when thinking about the impact of research communication.

*Alison Stevens is Communication Officer for the Health Economics Unit and the Consortium for Health Policy & Systems Analysis in Africa, University of Cape Town