July 8, 2015

By Julia Ogg, University of South Florida

When thinking about dissemination and impact, those of us on the tenure-track typically focus on peer-reviewed journal articles and professional conference presentations. However, a presentation I recently attended at my university showed me how non-traditional outlets such as social media and mainstream publications can extend the reach of our scholarship. Indeed the popularity of TED Talks and websites devoted to making science interesting and understandable illustrate the public’s interest in obtaining information about contemporary research topics. Using non-traditional outlets could increase the impact of our research by creating an opportunity for people to be exposed to our work who would not see it otherwise. This could ultimately lead people to our more traditional and detailed dissemination efforts. Despite recognizing the potential of these venues for getting our research distributed broadly, many in academic positions (including myself) have reservations.  Below I consider a few common concerns in regard to dissemination through popular media and potential solutions.

Concern: You are hesitant to share your research in non-traditional outlets like social media or mainstream publications because the information we generate from research is so nuanced.  That is, you do not want to oversimplify or fail to share the intricate nature of your findings.

Potential Solution: This is a valid concern; however, one perspective is that getting evidence-based information out there may encourage people to read more in depth on the topic. Although the message may not be understood in the exact way you intended it, by sharing you may open doors. This point was made very eloquently by Jonah Berger, a professor of business and social media expert, when asked if he has ever seen any of his studies misquoted, “That is the danger. And there are definitely quotes where you talk to someone for a half-hour, and they pick out the one thing that you said that you wish you didn’t say. And then you have a choice though. Do you not want to speak at all about your work or do you want to do your best to get it out there in a rigorous way. And if it takes a life of its own, try to correct that. And I think, personally at least, I am interested in making sure that my work is useful to people, and so that’s a risk you have to take” (Scott, 2012). 

Another point to consider here is that it is important for us to learn how to talk about our research in a way that is both understandable and engaging to the public. Certainly publications in peer-reviewed journals are essential to advance science, but also making our work useful to more people can also be considered an important goal. These two goals do not have to be in opposition. When it comes to writing for mainstream publications, just like writing for peer-reviewed journals, practice and experience will help.  Learn and practice how to succinctly share what you are learning with your research.  What we are doing when presenting our research is telling a story (a non-fiction story of course). Any good story-teller appreciates the utility of a narrative arc.  Authors like Malcolm Gladwell have made a career publishing popular books (i.e., OutliersThe Tipping Point) known for integrating research with a human-interest story.  In addition, adopting other strategies, such as using infographics or pictures, can help draw people into your message in a powerful way.

Concern:I don’t have time or this is too overwhelming. This will be way too difficult to sustain. 

Potential Solution: You do not have to become a media guru by tomorrow, but you do something as simple as joining Twitter and start following others with similar interests.  By becoming a consumer, you can learn about ways to use social media and other non-traditional outlets for disseminating your research. You may also gain information you would not have gotten via more traditional formats. It may be helpful to look at how other faculty use social media to share their work and I have provided a link below to an article on 50 media savvy professors.

In terms of sustaining your efforts, one strategy is to try and find ways to make this part of your routine by building in a short block of time to engage each day or week. Using features like scheduling when a tweet goes out (which can be accomplished through Twitter add-ons such as Hootsuite), you can be present at times beyond when you are online.  One other nice factor is that you can also be on Twitter even when you have just a short period of time (e.g., while waiting at the doctor’s office).  Ultimately, you could consider institutionalizing your efforts by including a graduate assistant on grants that assists with disseminating results via these methods.

I still have a lot to learn about how to effectively use and manage media to help disseminate my work; however, I think this is a topic that needs to be considered.  Sharing in these non-traditional ways may not be for everyone, but recognizing that the world we live in is changing and that these are increasingly widespread ways for interacting with others is important.  As academics we should consider how we can embrace these changes and use them to help our work inform policy and practice.

Scott, M. (September 28, 2012). Good bye ivory tower, hello social media: academics struggle to make ideas accessible. The Pulse. 
50 most social media savvy professors in America.

Related Resources of Interest

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