Whispering into a hurricane

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When you want to say something, a good communication strategy is crucial, says Audrey McCulloch

Communication. It’s at the heart of our industry in which we work. First, getting support for a research idea. It is likely either to be part of a tenure position (securing which required good communication) or grant-funded, in which case communicating the research idea clearly and effectively was necessary.

Now the research is complete, shouting about it is the next step. Preparing an article, essay, book chapter – or a whole book – takes time, from understanding and interpreting the results, to preparing your argument, to finding the right words to explain it all (to your peers).  

So far, so good. The research results/theories are published and out there to be found by those who seek them. The whole industry worked together to make sure the research was completed and made discoverable by those to whom it is relevant. But, if we look at communications outside the research cycle, is this as efficient and effective? I think there are many who would agree with me, when I say a definitive NO!

Publishers. Communication is our bread and butter. We take the raw content, turn it into the finished article, and make sure it can be found by anyone who needs it. It doesn’t matter what the format is – book, journal, thesis, monograph, in print, digital, or both. Publishing is a multi-faceted process and not easy to explain in an elevator pitch. The second sentence in this paragraph is so high level it doesn’t convey why so many people are employed in publishing and what they all do.  

As a result, those not involved in publishing ask questions such as: ‘Why are the costs what they are? Why can’t we just make it all free? After all, all you do is take the text, paste it into an online publishing software and hit the “publish” button, right?‘ The answer to that last one is also a definitive NO! and the (so far) 96 answers to the question ‘what do publishers do?’ on the Scholarly Kitchen blog provide an insight. But how long does it take for eyes to start glazing over when you start to explain the detail.  Do your parents really understand what you do? 

So, we have a communication problem. No, I don’t have the answer to this, but it’s something everyone in publishing needs to keep thinking about. 

Funders. They need to explain what grants are on offer, the criteria for each, and how to apply. This is on their websites. Researchers want to find this information, so they seek it out and initially this communication strategy works well. But what about changes, new policies, or requirements? Once a grant is in place, researchers are focussed on undertaking the research, not watching out for an email in case the parameters have shifted, nor monitoring the detail in everything else posted on a funder website. 

There are many different funders with different policies all over the world. Publishers have their own policies and requirements, as do governments and institutions. And don’t get me started on the additional projects that pop up from time to time and try to change how scholarly communication operates, regardless of the implications.

As everyone in communications knows, ‘nobody reads past the first couple of lines’, at least not the first three to five times you send it (gold star for getting this far!).

When someone wants to say something, a communication strategy has to start with: who needs to know this and how do I most effectively convey this information to them?

Unfortunately, the more common approach appears to be ‘if I put this online everyone will find it’. That has as much success as the build-it-and-they-will-come scenario of a few years ago. It’s the equivalent of whispering into a hurricane. 

There is a lot of communication going on; but how much of it is in a conversation? 

We need to stop and think about how we communicate what we need to, and more importantly, how we make sure the other party has heard what we have to say. Usually, a response is a clue. And if you don’t want a response, or worse, are not prepared to engage with responses, then carry on whispering into the hurricane. 

Audrey McCulloch is chief executive at ALPSP