by Emma L Henderson
On 28th September 2018 the Behavioural Science and Public Health Network (BSPHN), and BPS division of Health Psychology hosted their first joint event: “Writing for Impact: Publication, Policy and Media”. Fittingly for a workshop about writing for impact, the event was held in a beautiful Grade II listed Victorian building originally built to support London’s print and publishing industry on nearby Fleet Street. The event brought together a diverse mix of attendees, with the aim of exploring methods of maximising impact, and tailoring writing towards a range of target audiences. From the outset it was clear that most of us felt at home writing journal articles but hadn’t yet extended our writing repertoire into other styles.
The event opened with a welcome address from the BSPHN Chair, Dr Angel Chater, who introduced the day’s programme of expert speakers. Prof Jane Ogden, University of Surrey, expert in eating behaviour and obesity, kicked off the day with a talk about writing for different audiences. Having written 190 papers, as well as eight books, writing for The Conversation, speaking on Radio 4 and too many other appointments to mention, it was clear that Jane was a hugely skilled writer, and passionate about communicating to wider, non-academic audiences. Jane first summarised the tentative, careful and incremental nature of academic writing. She next asked us to consider why we should communicate outside the ivory tower of academia? The short answer – it’s fun! It’s also instantly rewarding, a way to engage with and impact a large number of readers, and as public sector employees it is a way to give something back to the public.
Next we discussed the characteristics of the non-academic voice. Together we read a selection of media pieces and some differences were immediately obvious: titles are shorter and snappier, statements are strong and prescriptive, and the language is colloquial and written in the author’s own voice. Jane highlighted other differences in the flow of the article, such as the fact that sentence lengths vary; short sentences make the point and longer ones explain it. Questions are asked to engage the reader and then answered. Finally, because articles are usually around 600 words long, it’s likely that the entire article will be read - unlike most scientific papers! In discussing the all important “how?” Angel highlighted that the BPS maintains a media database of experts (you can read more about that and contact them here). You can also let your university marketing or press office know about your research and they will send out a press release when your article is published. Jane was keen to emphasise being journalist-friendly. Most journalists are trustworthy and you have the opportunity to approve the work before it’s published. Last but not least – find your story; the nugget or hook that makes your work interesting.
Jane closed by discussing some of the tensions involved in writing for both policy and for the media. Cautious about writing for policy, Jane’s concerns involve the oversimplification, prescriptiveness, and potential to do harm that might be involved in converting research into policy. With a clear preference for writing for media, Jane highlighted that writing for a broader audience also comes with challenges. Some points to consider are the fact that you are exposing yourself (to good and to bad reactions), you have to scrap the caveats and say something definite. At the extreme there is the possibility of misquotation and loss of academic credibility. Jane’s experiences of engaging with the media have generally been very positive. She certainly hooked us with stories of Steve Coogan, and left us eager to investigate media opportunities.
Following a delicious lunch, and in a first for any workshop I have attended, we all headed out into the Autumn sunshine for a workshop walk. We enjoyed meeting new friends and networking while taking in the gorgeous sights across the Thames and at St Pauls’ Cathedral. Rather than fighting the usual post-lunch slump, we returned energised for the afternoon. We were first treated to a talk on how to publish for maximum impact by Rebecca Harkin of Wiley. Rebecca is a Publisher with 25-years’ experience in publishing academic journals and books, specialising in psychology and education. Rebecca gave us an information-packed talk, with lots of practical tips and a few “aha, that’s what that means” moments. Impact has traditionally been measured via number of citations but is increasingly also measured using number of reads (usage) and number of shares (altmetrics). Most of the audience had heard of altmetrics, but not realised that Altmetric is a company who provide metrics to help you judge the impact of the research in wider society. It pulls together all mentions of articles in various spheres like mainstream media, social networks such as Twitter and of course traditional journals, and it weights them.
Moving on to the “how” and “why” of maximising the impact of your paper, Rebecca delivered some staggering statistics: In 2017, 2.5 million articles were published by 8-9 million researchers in around 28,000 journals! So given that, how do we maximise impact? For starters, it’s never too early to start thinking about it, and considering which type of impact you want to make, for example changing policy, or building a body of evidence. In the context of the multiplicity of the research out there, it needs to be visible and discoverable. Rebecca recommends that you have key search terms in your title, abstract and, of course, key words. A lot of search engines only use the first 65 characters, so you need your search terms early in your title. This is especially important because Wiley’s own research suggests that only 45% of readers arrive directly at the Wiley platform and the remaining 55% get there via search engines. Wiley offer a lot of help to authors promoting their work. You can access their promotional toolkit here.
Rebecca explained that many of the ways of making your research visible involve sharing. You can post your pre- or post-publication prints to a repository, publish in open-access journals, and share your data and paper, then spread the word at conferences and on social media. I recommend PsyArXiv for preprints. You can check Publisher copyright policies here and share data and materials on the Open Science Framework. Rebecca introduced us to a novel way of making your research stand out - including a video abstract. This is a two to three minute description of the study by the author, either hosted on YouTube or embedded within the article itself. A pilot study by Wiley suggested that papers with video abstracts are read 71% more than those without. Time to get out the webcam! Some final practical tips from Rebecca were to sign up to ORCID and Kudos Research. Using ORCID ensures that every piece of research you publish is assigned to your profile, makes it easy for people to find your research and helps disambiguate names, while Kudos will track the impact that your research has had. Thank you Rebecca for sharing so many practical tools.
The final speaker of the day was Prof Jim McManus, Director of Public Health for Hertfordshire, and an instrumental figure in setting up the BSPHN. The focus of Jim’s talk was on writing for different audiences and considering the differences between writing for policy, scientific reports and scientific articles. I think the key take-home message, (and possibly Jim’s middle name!) is “flex your style” depending on whether you’re writing a blog post, journal article or policy document. Once you understand your audience, you can work out the reading style they like, then write something clear. Whatever context you’re writing for you should be able to communicate the key message in three sentences. When writing for policy, structure, brevity and clarity are your friend; the reader is probably very busy and might not read the document until they enter the meeting room so ensure that most of the important points are within the first two paragraphs. Jim recommends including an executive summary, and aiming for one policy point per page, with a maximum of six pages in total. Ensure it’s clear what you’re asking the reader to do: Are you asking for a decision, or simply briefing them?
In terms of writing style Jim advises aiming for something like “The Economist”. Policy makers need to understand technical information, but it should be explained in non-technical language and must flow. Try to avoid jargon terms (e.g., learnings, maximise) and use a “sensible”, clear English style. A top tip from Jim is to find a policy maker friend and ask them to read your work. A great example of the kind of hybrid between plain English and academic writing that you’re aiming for is a POSTnote. POSTnotes are short briefing notes designed to inform politicians of current science practice in an easily-digestible way. Angel mentioned that there are great opportunities for PhD students to have a three month fellowship working on a POST (more details here and here).
As the afternoon drew on, Jim kept us engaged with two interactive tasks. First, we discussed our own work and how it could be applied and communicated in policy. Second, Jim and a brave audience volunteer role-played a policy briefing session. This highlighted the types and tone of information you should get across in a briefing. This task particularly emphasised how to guide the person with whom you’re meeting towards the key points, those that the media might interrogate, and issues to be avoided. Jim provided us with a wealth of tips, tools and materials relating to writing for policy, leaving us feeling well informed about writing policy.
Angel brought the inspiring, practical and hugely enjoyable day to a close. Then it was off to the pub to discuss what had been learned and enjoy a well-deserved drink together.