‘Inspiring Stories’ with Michael Head

Senior Research Fellow, Cancer Sciences and Advocacy Manager, Media and Communications Teams

This is part of the Engaged Medicine ‘Inspiring Stories’ blog series. The blogs explore the stories behind outreach and patient-public engagement activities of staff and students from the University of Southampton’s Faculty of Medicine.

These days, it’s not enough to write a journal paper or two about our research, and consider that as a big finalised tick in the box marked “dissemination”. It’s a start, but there’s always that other word – “impact”.

The general public is interested in science, and the evidence base, and “what experts say”. The COVID-19 pandemic has illustrated so clearly the importance of public communications. We do need to communicate with non-academic stakeholders, to make that impact, to make our research Actually Useful out there in the real world.

That might include highlighting our results to policymakers, public engagement, or outreach into schools. There is also communicating with the media, directly through interviews or written quotes to journalists, and writing for media outlets, which includes The Conversation.

The University of Southampton subscribes to The Conversation, as a useful place for our academics to write about topics in the news, or their new research. I have written about 20 articles for them over the last 2 years, they’ve been translated into several different languages, and overall have received over 2.5 million reads (this is many, many more views than the entirety of my journals articles will ever get). Each article typically gets thousands of reads (sometimes 10s or 100s of thousands).  If your research is hyperlinked within a Conversation article, then that increases your Altmetric score, and give a way to quantify ‘impact’ and usefulness of the findings (that’s a whole different blog post, the Library has training sessions on research metrics, but see this example here of a policy brief about our vaccine hesitancy research that was referenced in the Conversation and quoted on other media sites – gives it a big Altmetric score).

The media do read Conversation contributions too, and this can be an avenue for further dissemination and impact. And one of the best things about them is they’re (relatively speaking) quick and easy to write. Each submission is 800 words, in language suitable for non-experts. The submission process is easy, and is nothing like the tedious time-consuming multi-coffee number of hoops journals makes you jump through. You can have two co-authors as well, if that helps with lightening the writing load.

The University is keen for more people to write articles. As part of the incentivisation process, Professor Mark Spearing, VP for Research, has very kindly agreed to write to published Conversation authors to congratulate them, cc’ing in their line manager. And there are discussions behind the scenes about it being formally recognised within appraisals etc.

In 2023, as the media and comms teams recruit new staff, there will be more focus in this area. That will include ‘writing retreats’ for non-academic pieces (like policy briefs, or The Conversation articles). There is going to be a networking-style event on 8 February (11am – 12:30pm) to talk more about all things Conversation (and no doubt more besides!).

There is support available from within the University. I have a role with the media and comms teams, as Advocacy Manager, with a focus on helping people write Conversation pitches and articles. So drop me an email if you’re interested to know more (m.head@soton.ac.uk). Conversation editors are very helpful and also thorough with their scrutiny and their editing.
Also, The Conversation sends out a daily Expert Request email highlighting topics they want academic experts to write about. If you’d like to receive that email, contact Lucy Collie (L.J.Collie@soton.ac.uk)

There’s plenty of resources available on Sharepoint (https://sotonac.sharepoint.com/teams/CommunicationsandMarketing/SitePages/The-Conversation.aspx) (along with the presentation from Freya Robb, Science Media Centre, about how to engage with journalists and joining their experts mailing list).

And what with the REF and funder requirements, being able to demonstrate impact from our research is very important! See this Southampton REF Impact case study for how the importance of media engagement, including writing in The Conversation.

Hope this is helpful to some of you when you’re thinking about ways to disseminate your research and making an impact! And stay tuned for More Exciting Stuff to be announced across 2023!

Michael Head
Clinical Informatics Research Unit, Faculty of Medicine

Stay Connected! To find out more about the ‘Inspiring Stories’ series, Faculty of Medicine educational programmes and research, or to get involved use the links below or contact Dr Lucy Green.

University staff or students click here for the Engaged Medicine SharePoint.

‘Inspiring Stories’ with Michael Head

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