In the academic world of publication or disappearance, it is often thought that only one type of publication matters: the peer-reviewed journal article. Academic documents play a disproportionate role in determining faculty appointments, tenure decisions and respect for colleagues in their field.
Despite their importance, there is an ongoing debate about how many people actually read a typical journal article, with some studies suggesting that many articles end up with only a handful of readers over the years. While readership is difficult to measure, a stronger indicator of an article’s impact, citations, is not more encouraging. A Nature analysis of 39 million research articles found that one in five had never been cited.
Whether or not the limited scope of academic papers is an issue depends on your goals. Sometimes you just need the other five people in your specialty to read an article and continue to build on the discoveries you’ve made. But if you want to influence a wider audience of policy makers, civic leaders, CEOs, journalists, and other mainstream readers with your ideas, an academic journal article is not the right tool for the task.
Here are four more types of writing to try if you want to increase the reach and impact of your research.
- Op-eds. An editorial or article for mainstream media will instantly broadcast your ideas to thousands, if not millions of readers. You will not be able to delve into the technical details of your research as you would in an academic article. Instead, you should focus on lessons from your research on issues that interest readers. For example, over the past year and a half my organization, Footnote, has worked with experts in fields as diverse as digital education, supply chain management and housing markets to help them write and publish opinion pieces on the impact of the pandemic in these areas. Op-eds offer a chance to bring your expertise to what is going on in the world around you and connect with the grand vision of the importance of your work.
- Blog articles. If writing an op-ed for a major media outlet seems intimidating, try starting with an article for a blog or media that specializes in your field. For example, if your research focuses on wetland restoration, find an environmental policy site or nature blog that might be interested in your work. While these platforms tend to have smaller audiences than the mainstream mainstream media, they offer a chance to reach the readers who care the most about an issue. Practitioners, politicians, educators, executives and activists who read targeted media are already willing to be very interested in your work if it is presented in a digestible format – they have interest but rarely have the time or access to read an academic article. paper.
- Guidance Notes and White Papers. Like blog posts, these posts are aimed at a more targeted audience of policy makers or practitioners, but still broader than the typical academic journal article. Compared to editorials, guidance notes and white papers are often longer, more technical, and deeper in research. They provide more space to talk about the details of your work, but still force you to focus on the implications and applications of the results outside of academia. A guidance note or white paper can be posted on your own project website, through a partner organization, or through academic channels.
- Social media. You might not think of social media as a form of writing, but platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn are largely driven by writing. Because the format of a tweet or post requires you to be concise and engaging, social media is a great testing ground for prepping your ideas and figuring out how to articulate them to a larger audience. You can also follow other academics to see how they write about their research and find out what policymakers, practitioners, and the public are talking about as it relates to your field of study. For advice from Footnote’s former social media coordinator on how to get started on social media, check out this series of posts.
Whichever format you choose, you’ll want to write in a different style than you’re used to when writing for a college journal. Aim for accessibility and engagement rather than completeness. Focus on the lessons and implications rather than the details of the research. Tell your research story in a way that fits the format and structure that traditional readers find compelling and expect.
If you want to reach a wider audience and increase the impact of your research, you need to write for opportunities beyond academic journals. The most important thing is to get started, whether it’s jumping on Twitter, asking to contribute to a blog you like, or writing an op-ed for your local newspaper. As you build your confidence and write, you can branch out into platforms where you can reach an increasingly large national or even international audience. Stay tuned to our blog channel here on Inside higher education for more advice on effective research communication, and don’t hesitate to contact us if you have any questions!
Diana Brazzell is co-founder and editor-in-chief of Footnote, a communications group that increases the impact of academic research and expertise by sharing them with a wider audience.