Writing Beyond the Academic Journal

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In the publish-or-perish world of academia, it’s often believed that only one kind of publication matters: the peer-reviewed journal article. Academic papers play an outsize role in determining faculty appointments, tenure decisions and the respect of colleagues in one’s field.

Despite their importance, there is an ongoing debate about how many people actually read a typical journal article, with some studies suggesting that many papers end up with only a handful of readers over the years. While readership is slippery to measure, a more solid indicator of a paper’s impact, citations, is no more encouraging. A Nature analysis of 39 million research papers found that one in five had never been cited.

Whether or not the limited reach of academic papers is a problem depends on your goals. Sometimes you only need the five other people in your specialized field to read a paper and keep building on the discoveries you’ve made. But if you are aiming to influence a broader audience of policy makers, civic leaders, CEOs, journalists and other mainstream readers with your ideas, an academic journal article is not the right tool for the task.

Here are four other kinds of writing to try your hand at if you want to increase the reach and impact of your research.

  • Op-eds. An op-ed or article for a mainstream media outlet will instantly get your ideas in front of thousands or even millions of readers. You won’t be able to dive into the technical details of your research as you would in an academic paper. Instead, you should focus on the lessons your research holds on the issues readers care about. For example, over the past year and a half, my organization, Footnote, has worked with experts in fields as diverse as digital education, supply chain management and housing markets to help them craft and place op-eds about the impact of the pandemic in these areas. Op-eds offer a chance to bring your expertise to bear on what’s happening in the world around you and connect with the big vision of why your work matters.
  • Blog posts. If writing an op-ed for a major media outlet seems daunting, try starting with a post for a blog or niche media outlet in your field. For example, if your research focuses on wetland restoration, look for an environmental policy site or nature blog that might be interested in your work. While these platforms tend to have smaller audiences than the top mainstream media outlets, they offer a chance to reach the readers who care most about an issue. The practitioners, policy wonks, educators, executives and activists who read targeted outlets are already primed to be highly interested in your work if it is presented in a digestible format — they have the interest but rarely have the time or access to read an academic paper.
  • Policy briefs and white papers. Like blog posts, these publications are aimed at a more targeted audience of policy makers or practitioners, but still one that is wider than the typical academic journal article. Compared to op-eds, policy briefs and white papers are often longer, more technical and dive deeper into the research. They offer more space to talk about the details of your work but still require you to focus on the implications and applications of the findings outside academia. A policy brief or white paper can be published on your own project website, through a partner organization or via university channels.
  • Social media. You may not think of social media as a form of writing, but platforms like Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn are largely driven by the written word. Because the format of a tweet or post forces you to be concise and engaging, social media is a great testing ground for workshopping your ideas and figuring out how to articulate them to a broader audience. You can also follow other academics to see how they write about their research, and check out what decision makers, practitioners and the public are talking about when it comes to your area of study. For tips from Footnote’s former social media coordinator on how to get started on social media, check out this series of posts.

Whichever format you choose, you’ll want to write in a style that’s different from what you’re used to when writing for an academic journal. Aim for accessible and engaging rather than exhaustive. Focus on the lessons and implications more than the details of the research. Tell your research story in a way that fits the format and structure mainstream readers find compelling and have come to expect.

If you want to reach a broader audience and increase the impact of your research, you’ve got to write for outlets beyond academic journals. The most important thing is to get started, whether that’s hopping on Twitter, asking to contribute to a blog you like or writing an op-ed for your local paper. As you build up your confidence and writing chops, you can branch out to platforms where you can reach a larger and larger national or even international audience. Stay tuned to our blog channel here on Inside Higher Ed for more advice on effective research communication, and don’t hesitate to contact us if you have questions!

Diana Brazzell is the co-founder and executive editor of Footnote, a communications group that increases the impact of academic research and expertise by sharing it with a broader audience.