By Sumana Banerjee, Jadavpur University
One of CARIAA’s research objectives is to “build new capacities by strengthening expertise among researchers, policymakers, and practitioners”. Ensuring that our research informs policy and practice is thus a critical component of what we do. Communicating their findings to audiences beyond their peers is often a novel idea for academics and here Sumana Banerjee, DECCMA’s project manager for India, reflects on some of her experiences in trying to support this.
Speaking from my experience of working closely with researchers, I realised that they find it difficult to translate research concerns or findings to outputs which can be easily read by stakeholders. They are keener to write for an academic journal than for the project’s blog. I feel this has to do with the way researchers are trained, where skill to write dissertations, thesis, and academic papers is stressed upon. Internet has changed our lives and it often made me wonder if schools could teach on how to communicate to different audiences: blog-writing as well as essay writing, email writing alongside letter writing, and micro-blogging for Twitter in addition to precis writing. This would not only make lessons more exciting but also help the students in their professional lives later on.
Working in the capacity of a Project Manager makes me feel like The Dark Knight who is a silent guardian and a watchful protector. Just like a good guardian, I find myself “guarding” my research team from questions such as “what is this supposed to mean?”, “what do you aim to do with you research” by answering them myself simply and without confusing jargon.
I often write blog posts for the project website based on the researchers’ experiences at training workshops or their findings. Hailing from a non-science background, I initially found it difficult to talk about work with my team and I could not see myself writing about their scientific findings and experiences.
The one thing that I had to do was ask questions to learn more and ensure I understood the research findings myself. My colleagues were patient and kind enough to answer my questions or discuss my interpretations.
Soon I was able to simplify jargon into understandable phrases – “5m contoured areas” became “areas within 5m of height from mean sea level”; “negative net migration” became “more people leaving than entering (In-migration< Out-migration)”.
It is DECCMA’s policy for researchers to write a blog post after engaging in fieldwork, or attending a conference or workshop. When I would request researchers to submit a blog post it would often be met with displeasure, or the output would be a highly technical one, fit to be published in an academic journal.
I used to edit the articles they submitted by asking questions (again!) and checking if I interpreted the technical bits correctly. Then I planned to make my life a tad easier by sharing a questionnaire with them which would coax them to provide brief and simple answers. With specified word limits and seeking answers in only certain areas which would be relatable by all, this simplified the writing process for the researchers and me. They did not have to think and write from scratch to suit a blog audience and I did not have to get stuck at every second sentence and ask questions to produce a simple write up.
Going by Plato’s concept of Art being twice removed from reality, I am often concerned while simplifying write-ups if I have over-simplified and distorted the message or not communicated it accessibly for a non-expert. As a cross-checking process I use a method which my dad used to employ on me before my exams, which I hated back then but value so much now.
My dad used to come around and ask me if I am all set for the exams and start chatting with me. I expected him to ask me questions to test my preparedness but he never asked questions and instead asked me to “teach” him what I learnt. Every time I tried sharing a well-memorised definition, he would discourage me and ask me to explain it to him as he found the definitions too difficult. I used to get annoyed that, in spite of knowing the concepts, he pretended not to know anything and wasted my time before an exam!
I feel so grateful to him for encouraging me to explain things in my own words with examples and funny imaginary stories. Now, I use this method after writing a simplified piece. I share what I have understood and written in the form of a short narrative with the researchers and if they feel I have captured what they tried telling, half my job is done. Their approval is a nod that I have not distorted the message.
The next thing that I do is give the article a good read – as a non-expert if I feel comfortable reading the article and understanding the message, I feel convinced that a stakeholder would do too. Working in a research team, I have been somewhat inducted into their world of jargon and at times I fear (yes, it is fear!) that unknowingly I would use or retain some of the jargon and it would not strike me as “unrelatable”! As a double check against this, I narrate a gist of it to my husband who is in advertising and quite removed from research or academia. If he understands what I say, I feel happy that it will be an easy read.
This communication of research messages has been a learn-as-you-go experience for me and I find this interesting. This learning would not have been possible without the patience of the people who endured my questions and narrations. My quest to understand and simplify research messages involves informal chats and asking a lot of questions. I often felt hesitant to ask questions that I might be bothering but I decided to stick to what a wise person once told me –
“It is better to ask questions and do the right things than not ask questions and do the wrong things.”