This is a guest blog by Emily May Armstrong, a PhD student in the Institute of Molecular, Cell, & Systems Biology, who works on the epigenetic regulation of stress tolerance in plants. She also runs the Institute’s social media streams, is the PGR Disabled Student’s representative, and can be found blogging and tweeting @emilyxarmstrong.
I was lucky enough to be invited to attend the fifth Research Conference (ReCon) in Edinburgh last month. ReCon aims to discuss issues affecting research communication in academia and beyond: tackling anything from performance metrics, open access, digital footprints, DOIs (we’ll get to those later), reimagining science, and dismantling neoliberalism in academia. It turns out that there’s a lot of relatively easy things that we can do to enhance our communication, impact, and careers.
Pictures public domain via Flickr
As PhD students, it can be pretty hard to tear ourselves away from our fascinating, cutting edge, and often frustrating studies. I often lose sight of how interesting my work actually is, and how interesting non-specialists find it – I am sure the same is true for many of you, too. But why should we be sharing our research in the first place? Glasgow alumna Becky Douglas says that researchers and academics are often viewed by the public as out-of-touch, elitist, and intimidating. Providing insight in what we actually do can break down those barriers between scientists and the public.
We’re almost “duty-bound” to share our research with tax payers, considering that they actively fund our research, careers, and lives. It’s only fair that they’re given the opportunities to get to grips with understanding our world. But how can we do this? There’s a fair few hurdles in the way for early career researchers, according to speaker Lewis MacKenzie, but with some foresight and planning, it becomes a manageable task. Nicola Osbourne, Digital Education Manager at the University of Edinburgh, was also on-hand to ensure we create the best ‘digital footprint’ possible, a must for any professional research-sharers. I tried to summarise what I learned at ReCon to help you work on your own digital footprints.
How do I find and know my audience?
Who do you want to talk to? School kids? Retirees? An “average” family? Work out who you feel most comfortable approaching, and think about what they’d be interested in. Trying to inspire kids to pursue a scientific career will require a very different approach as talking to patients afflicted by the disease you are studying, for example. Consider your logistics, too. Want to talk to schools in the highlands? Make sure you’ve got a car, or another means of transport. Talk to your supervisor or engagement manager, if your institute has one, to see if they can help you with contacts or resources.
Where do I even do this?
Science communication can be done in a physical place, or by occupying an accessible niche on social media streams. Find out what events are being organised nearby. Glasgow is incredibly lucky to host loads of initiatives to get your research heard by the wider community: Glasgow Science Festival, Science Slam, Pint of Science, Brightclub, Café Scientifique, Science Museum… the list is practically endless. They almost always accept any kind of research from different disciplines. And what’s great for us is that they constantly need new people to get out and join in. Alternatively, get a Twitter account set up, network with people in your field, and find out what they are doing and go for it.
Join the conversation on Twitter using #ReCon_17, pictures public domain via Flickr
The digital footprint: How will people find me online?
If you’re going to be Tweeting, Instagramming, or Youtubing: you need to decide on your tone of voice. Are you going for the LinkedIn style of entirely professional, or a more relaxed style of vlogging, or making podcasts? Do you have any old weird tweets from 2009 about something you may regret now? Make sure you go back and deep-cleanse the channel you decide to use (but, pictures of cats are definitely acceptable). A good check of your footprint is to use DuckDuckGo to search for your name. Once you’ve chosen your voice, start to network with peers, professors, and post-docs in your field. Watch what they do and why they’re successful with their outreach. As social media becomes more accepted as a means of science communication, you will have to decide whether you want to reach out to the public or just make your name heard in your own field – these require different approaches.
But what about ‘non-scientific/academic’ people?
The toughest part is connecting with people who wouldn’t usually come to science events. You can contact local ‘non-science’ museums and events, like Kelvingrove and The Botanics. Both often have big events and by participating in those, you’ll capture the hearts and minds of even ‘harder-to-reach’ people.
But why even bother?
There has been a massive shift in how outreach and communication is viewed by potential employers. It’s no longer viewed as a weird waste of time, but as a valuable investment in ensuring the public understand and enjoy what we do as researchers. Not only that, it’s also really rewarding to teach non-experts about what you love and why you’re doing it. Plus, you can inspire future generations to follow in your footsteps.
Great, but how do I prove I’ve done all this?
Document everything. A blog with links to all of your outreach is a great start, as is assigning digital copies of your work a DOI, or Digital Object Identifier. This means each photo, poster, or video you create can be uniquely traced back to you. You can also investigate the world of alternative metrics. These are quantifiable measurements relating to “non-traditional” impact. They are measured as “Viewed, Discussed, Saved, Cited, & Recommended”. At an early stage in your career, “discussed” includes comments on a journal website, but also mentions on science blogs and social media. As such, it’s probably the easiest category to go for if you haven’t got much publishable research yet.
This process may seem very overwhelming, but there are a few companies offering tracking and quantifying services, often on an institute subscription basis. Altmetrics uses an algorithm to assign each item a score which reflects the attention volume and attention sources, which generates a graphic proportional to where the attention comes from and can be viewed online. You’ve probably seen their colourful donut icon on websites and journals by now. A similar initiative is run by CrossRef, a Digital Object Identifier registration agency. Crossref interlinks different items, such as journal articles, technical reports, datasets, and conference proceedings. In turn, this allows quantifiable metrics to be extracted from each ‘object’, depending on the number of views.
What are metrics? What are altmetrics? Why should I even be worrying about impact and outreach this early on in my careers? These were some of my thoughts before attending ReCon, and I know that I’m definitely not alone in this. Luckily, we were presented with an array of potential solutions to this problem that I didn’t even know I had. Metrics are a useful tool to track real-time “impact” of academic research on the research community itself, as well as wider society. These can range from determining the impact factor for a whole journal, or just a single piece of research you’ve produced. There’s a lot of different ways of doing this – you just have to find what fits you best!
Seems like a lot to take in? If you want to explore further, you can check out all of ReCon’s video coverage from a broad range of speakers on their blog. Inspired by ReCon, the UofG Library Team will also be holding an event for researchers on 27 October with tours, talks and tools to help you with research communication! Further info to follow – keep an eye on our Twitter for details @UofG_PGRBlog.