Get the Word Out! How to Bring Your Expertise to the Public
By Joshua A. Tucker, New York U
This article was originally published in the August 2016 edition of NewsNet. This article is based on remarks delivered by Professor Tucker on November 21, 2015 at the ASEEES Annual Convention as part of a Vice-Presidential Roundtable.
Times are changing in academia. Whereas previously trying to share one’s work with an audience beyond the academy might have been seen as a distraction at best and somehow “unprofessional” at worst, today there is a growing recognition that sharing one’s research with a wider audience can be a rewarding part of an academic career. This article is primarily intended to serve as a primer for those who are interested in seeing more academic work shared, including both their own and their colleagues. Accordingly, it is divided into two parts: advice for individuals on steps that you can take to share your work more widely, and advice on steps that we can take collectively to facilitate the sharing of academic research with a wider audience more generally. However, I am going to start first by addressing the question of why?
Why share your research more broadly?
Academics are busy, and therefore any time someone comes along and suggests “here is something else you ought to do that is going to take up time”, a healthy degree of skepticism is in order. However, let me suggest four reasons while trying to share your research with a broader audience might be the exception to this rule.
Sharing your research as an obligation. Most of us at one point or another were given the opportunity to study and learn and research while someone else was footing the bill, be it a university, one’s parents, the state, etc. As a result, we have all developed specialized knowledge that few – if any – other people share. That knowledge will undoubtedly have value to someone beside you. Some work might help inform better public policy. Other work could help businesses make decisions about investment. Still other types of research may simply improve – or help correct – the historical record. Regardless of what we study, there is undoubtedly someone else out there who will be interested in it. Traditionally, we think of teaching as the way we pay back society for the investment it has made in all of us; public engagement may be another important way to accomplish this task as well.
Sharing your research as service to the discipline. As a political scientist, I am keenly aware of the fact that continued access to federal funding relies on Members of Congress continuing to value what we do. For others, it may be a question of needing to convince university administrators of the value of offering certain subjects and degrees. All of us undoubtedly value from having foundations and donors think our work is important. Sharing your work publicly is one crucial way to demonstrate its importance.
Sharing your research as a way to do better research. As academics, we are all very good at talking about our work in heavily jargon-laden terms. But the reality is that most people have no idea what post-modernism, endogeneity, or identification strategies are. Forcing yourself to talk about your own research in language that is accessible to a wider audience is a great way to force yourself to think clearly and concisely about what you are trying to accomplish, why you are doing so, and the ways in which you have or have not achieved this goal. This process can not only make you a better writer, but can also spur new ideas for future research.
Sharing your research because you are proud of what you have done. While there are of course professional reasons for needing to publish our research, most of us also publish because we genuinely want to share what we have accomplished and learned with others. Although we are loath to admit it, the number of people who will read the modal journal article or chapter in an edited volume is quite low. A well thought out blog post or op-ed, however, has the ability to reach many people. Moreover, it can serve as a gateway to the longer academic publication, making that version of your research output available to a larger audience as well.
What can you do as an individual to share your research more widely?
1) Learn to write in a style that can be read by non-academics. This means avoiding technical and field specific jargon. And don’t kid yourself – every field has its own jargon, no matter how “technical” the research may be. Indeed, the best way to write for a wider audience is to assume your reader is interested in your topic, but has never take a university-level course in the subject. And note that this style of writing takes practice, as it is very different from what we usually write when submitting our work for peer review.
2) Think about applying your work to topical issues. This is not a requirement, but you will generally find that if you have a “hook” into a current development that’s in the news, it will be easier to place your write up of your research in a public outlet.
3) Think about what is known in academy that might be unknown outside of the academy. There is a lot of information and insight that we can often take as given within an academic field (e.g., in political science one “law” is that proportional representation electoral rules are more likely to result in multi-party systems than “first past the post” single member districts), but that may not be well known outside your field. This can be an excellent subject for public engagement, and can also serve as a useful “hook” into your own research when appropriate.
4) Take initiative, and take advantage of available resources. Occasionally, we will be lucky enough that public outlets will come to us asking us to write about our research. But in the vast majority of cases – especially when trying to share work more widely for the first time – it is far more likely that you will have to take the initiative yourself. Crucially, you should know that’s fine! And fortunately, there are far more outlets that are hungry for content – and especially for informed content, the type in which academics specialize – today in the Internet age than there used to be. So one important part of the publication process is to reach out to these outlets – whether they are traditional media outlets, new media venues, or disciplinary or area-specific blogs – and find out how to pitch ideas for pieces. Some places will want a short “pitch”; others may want the full piece. Some have guidelines posted, but others will not.
It is also important to know that there are resources available to help you with this process. Most universities (and many centers, schools, etc. within universities) have dedicated public relations professionals whose job it is to help you get coverage of your research, and blogging about your work fits squarely within that realm. There are also helpful resources outside of your university, including disciplinary resources (more on this below) and websites like http://womenalsoknowstuff.com/. But most importantly, you do not need to navigate this (potentially) new world of publication opportunities alone.
5) Support others who are engaged in sharing their own work. I began this essay by noting that times are changing in academia, but that does not mean that everyone is in favor of these changes. If you are someone – like I am – who thinks that public engagement is a worthwhile endeavor for an academic, then speaking up and supporting your colleagues who have dedicated some of their time to it is another way to help. A simple congratulations on a well placed public piece is nice as well.
What can be done at the disciplinary level to encourage public engagement?
1) Provide resources for those wishing to participate in public engagement. This could include online training sessions, editors to help people with their writing, panels at conferences (like the one that inspired this article…) from people with experience with public engagement, administrative resources to help deal with getting articles ungated (freely accessible) in conjunction with blog posts about them, etc. The basic point here is that disciplinary associations could play a role in helping empower their members to share research more widely.
2) Recognize that public engagement is a form of disciplinary service. Promotion, evaluation, and merit raises in academia are traditionally based on some combination of research, teaching, and service. While in years gone by public engagement was likely to have been seen as a distraction to fulfilling those core obligations, today more and more people are coming to see public engagement as a legitimate form of service to this discipline. I have long felt that blogging actually helps my research and therefore could legitimately be said to be contributing to one’s research efforts, but I am willing to settle for now for a growing recognition of public engagement as fulfilling part of one’s core responsibilities as an academic through the service requirement.
People who share this belief, therefore, can contribute to the legitimization of public engagement as a form of service by recognizing it both publically and privately. Perhaps most crucially, this means that those of us who are asked to participate in the evaluation process of candidates for promotion should take the opportunity to highlight public engagement as a positive form of service (e.g., in tenure and promotion letters).
Area Studies and Public Engagement
In some ways, area studies specialists have both the best and the worst standing when it comes to opportunities for public engagement.
On the one hand, it may be more difficult to convince editors of mainstream publications that there will be interest in focused research on far-away countries about which much of the mass public may have little interest. Writing for mainstream audiences about events in countries about which they know little may be a particularly challenging case for writing in a manner that avoids jargon – where jargon here might be the names of regions, political parties, or great cultural figures – in an effort to be widely accessible.
On the other hand, though, when the public’s gaze is fixed in the direction of a country about which little is known, the demand for exactly the kind of knowledge that academics who have been studying countries for years are uniquely positioned to deliver may be in extremely high demand. Moreover, the value of sharing this type of specialized academic knowledge for public policy may never be higher. Just to give two examples, a post by Oxana Shevel on the history of the Crimean Tatars at The Monkey Cage in March of 2014 got over 40,000 page views; a recent post by Kimberly Marten on Putin and the Russian doping scandal at the same blog got over 140,000 views. There is an audience out there for specialized area-studies knowledge. Finding it – and learning how to write for it – may take some time and effort, but the payoff both individually and collectively can definitely be worth it.
Joshua A. Tucker is Professor of Politics at NYU, the Director of the New York University Jordan Center for the Advanced Study of Russia, and a co-author of the award winning Monkey Cage blog at The Washington Post.