'It just frustrates me to see research not being read and used'

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Charlie Rapple

Kudos co-founder Charlie Rapple explains her passion for accelerating the dissemination – and impact – of science

Tell us a little about your background and qualifications…

I got into the scholarly communication sector by accident. I’d studied history of art and had a holiday job at a fine art publisher. When I graduated and looked for a publishing job, I saw an ad in the local paper for something called an ‘electronic publisher'. I had no idea what that meant but it had the magic words ‘no experience necessary’, so I applied.

That was at CatchWord, a pioneer of online publishing technology and services. My first role was converting the printers’ postscript files into digital articles complete with live reference links. I had just left university, where I had spent a lot of time in the library, photocopying reference lists, looking up shelf references, hunting down the text cited, and so on. So I really ‘got’ the value and importance of just being able to click on a link in a reference list!

From that I became product manager for metadata, before moving into marketing – kind of by chance, as I was helping cover a colleague’s maternity leave. My boss, Doug Wright, sent me on a Chartered Institute of Marketing course that changed my career – I gained a postgraduate diploma and a new understanding of and respect for marketing as a strategic driver of a business. Later, I went to work my Kudos co-founder Melinda Kenneway at TBI Communications, and spent many happy years consulting for publishers, universities and societies. 

In a nutshell, what does Kudos do – and have you been involved in any particular interesting projects recently?

Kudos helps more people find, understand and act on research.

The world has so many knowledge gaps and you can see the problems that creates, on everything from Covid to climate to badger culling. People don’t want to be told what to do by ‘authorities’ - they need to be persuaded, which means they need to be able to make sense of the evidence for themselves, and feel that they have been given the chance to make their own minds up. I think every bit of research should come with a simple summary of what it’s about and why it’s important, what its findings or recommendations are.

And we need to make those easy for people to find – not hidden in a funding proposal or a university report, but collated and promoted in a centralised way. The word ‘promotion’ is one I shied away from for many years – many people feel that research shouldn’t need promotion, that it should stand on its own merits. But that’s conflating two different things. Even the best research isn’t going to make a difference in the world if no-one can find it. I firmly believe that it’s not enough just to make information available – you have to proactively make your potential audiences aware of it.

For the last 10 years, Kudos has been giving researchers the skills, tools and confidence to communicate more effectively. But in the last couple of years we’ve massively expanded our supporting activities on the promotional side. We now do a lot more to grow the audience for the summaries on our platform, and I’ve been leading our projects in this area. This has involved setting up 'knowledge cooperatives', where publishers work together to broaden the audience for research around a public interest topic such as climate change, artificial intelligence, or diversity and equality.

We have commissioned professionally written summaries of published research on these topics, and run substantial multi-channel promotional campaigns around them – advertising on search engines, posting about them on social media, doing PR and email campaigns.

One of the most bits I have most enjoyed getting to grips with aspects is improving the rankings of research summaries in search engines, so when people search they find information they can understand, but that is based on proper research rather than more speculative, biased or deliberately misinformative content. This involves identifying trending search terms, targeted clustering of relevant summaries, and the creation of ’pillar pages’ and videos. It’s stuff that digital marketers in consumer sectors would do in their sleep but it’s exciting to see that the same techniques can help more people engage with research.

Is there an area of scholarly communications that you are particularly passionate about?

I am very passionate about marketing and communications, as you might be able to tell! It just frustrates me to see research not being read and used. If it’s worth doing the research in the first place, it’s worth putting a bit of time and effort into making sure it is making a difference to someone, somewhere.

I’m also really passionate about collaboration between the different ‘stakeholders’ in scholarly communication. About 15 years ago I got involved with UKSG, which is a cross-sector association bringing together libraries, publishers, technology providers, intermediaries and all the other organisations that are involved in ‘the information supply chain’. I vividly remember the first UKSG conference I went to and the sense of suddenly accelerating up a learning curve, a blossoming understanding of the day-to-day realities of people that had previously just been names in email threads.

That sort of connection and insight made such a difference to how I did my job. Time and again I’ve heard people say that about UKSG – that it helped them understand things from a different perspective. Sometimes over the years it has felt like publishers and libraries are adversaries, so it really matters that different groups come together in pursuit of a common goal from time to time. And get to see each other as human beings rather than corporate entities.

What are your wider hopes for the industry for the next 10 years?

Not to bang my drum too incessantly, but … I hope we’ll be taking a more active role in communicating research beyond academia. There is a great opportunity for a more joined-up approach, and publishers and libraries – by dint of their existing connections and partnerships – would be really well placed to make this happen. At the moment only the most prestigious research gets the ‘full treatment’ in terms of universities’ PR outreach. There is great potential for the ‘long tail’ of research to be more actively publicised.

I think some of what is needed has been derailed by the focus on open access, with a sort of working assumption that enabling the general public, patients, educators and so on to access research papers will be a catalyst for accelerating the impact of that research. But of course it isn’t – yes, researchers need access to papers, but wider audiences need simpler summaries or more targeted explanations. It still takes years and years for research recommendations to become normal practice, because of the disconnect between research ‘producers’ and ‘users’. I hope that our industry can help close that gap over the next 10 years.

Lastly, do you have any fascinating hobbies or pastimes you want to tell us about?

Nothing all-consuming – a bit like work-me, home-me is also a generalist. I love reading, particularly books set in harsh environments, which somehow make me feel cosy and relaxed. I enjoy my travels. I indulge my creative side from time to time with a bit of painting, photography or collage. I love music and festivals. I sing in an occasional choir that does choral evensongs in cathedrals, which marries my love of singing with my love of architecture! 

Interview by Tim GIllett