When asked whose responsibility it is to communicate their work, the researcher in question usually responds sheepishly that it is the university or institutions’ responsibility. However, in an interview with an eminent Applied Economist working with developing countries, the answer was surprising- “it is my responsibility to communicate my work”.
Other equally positive responses to questions that communications experts tend to dread followed. Working in a field that has clear policy relevance may make the difference. Continual exposure to the sometimes complicated workings of the policy process has allowed the researcher to tailor the outputs of his work and to meet the needs of the relevant policymakers. When asked if he assumed that policymakers read his research papers in the original format, he responded realistically- that policy makers do not have time to read his work.
The solution he engineers is simple: utilising contacts within various governments, the ideal setting is to sit down with policymakers and talk directly to them, thereby, helping increase information retention. Failing this, appropriate policy briefs are written. Simple and effective guides to writing policy briefs stress taking into consideration both the audience and their time constraints, amongst other things.
Two other heartening findings were that the said researcher kept a blog and that he believed impact was something to strive for when generating research. Again this could be explained by the researcher’s proximity to policy. In his own words “impact is key to economists, because we have the ability to reach policy and affect the lives of millions of people”. The appreciation for communication was further compounded by the acknowledgement that economics is essentially communication oriented, therefore, making communication inherent within the discipline.
When quizzed about the gap between research and policy, the answer was also encouraging- that most academics within the discipline were evolving to produce a mixed model for outputs. Thus, the research paper comprises only a part of a wider portfolio of work, which may include blogs or social media, improving access and engagement with research.
However, creeping complaints typical of researchers discussing communications soon surfaced. A barrier to the mixed model for outputs was identified: the lack of financial incentives, with researchers gaining no reward for blogging or writing policy briefs. The researcher whilst seeing the value of blogs to disseminate his work and as a source of new ideas, lacked the time to blog regularly because research took priority. Blogs and social media were critiqued for being less rigorous in comparison to traditional research methods, a common complaint levelled at grey literature.
Impact whilst being depicted as crucial to the research process could not be defined. The researcher was pessimistic about solving the problem of impact, as “it is such broad concept which can never be truly objective”. Metrics were the preferred measure of impact and interestingly their flaws were well understood. For those interested, the flaws and bias of metrics are well researched in a recent HEFCE report.
The preponderance with metrics can be explained in part by institutional obsession with them (they now make appearances in CV’s and bids for promotion), and also as the researcher noted due to the difficulty of tracking impact continuously through the policy process, with policy change never being fully attributable to a single cause.
The crux of the problem was highlighted by the researcher in conclusion, that researchers are trained solely in research methods and communication skills are simply assumed. Essentially, it is up to the individual researcher how widely they want to disseminate their work. Training in communication may be the key to ensuring that research obtains impact.