Over the past few weeks we’ve looked at a number of important factors concerned with being geologists that have a high degree of professionalism and social responsibility. These posts have included a number of practical tips on writing, preparing reports and undertaking fieldwork overseas and in different cultures. Today we explore the importance of disseminating research. You’ve undertaken a fantastic mapping project or piece of research or aspect – the next step is making sure that all relevant stakeholders get access to that and can understand it. Disseminating research is a crucial part of a project having maximum impact, and so it is important to consider how to do this from the start of your career. It is also, we would argue, a professional responsibility of all geoscientists.
Below we outline a number of important factors to take into account…
Consider All Relevant Stakeholders
When starting to plan dissemination, it is helpful to consider the range of stakeholders (those who have an interest or ‘stake’ in the work) that you should communicate the results and meaning of your work to. For a mapping project this may include your geology/earth science department – including lecturers and students, departments that gave you support in the country you worked (if overseas), those who funded your mapping project (through grants and donations), and the local communities that you worked in. For other research this could also include specific civil protection agencies, businesses and NGO practitioners.
Thinking through the range of stakeholders that you should be disseminating your work to, can help to best address the question of how to disseminate work and the types of medium to use.
How to disseminate?
At the EGU in 2012, I attended a debate on hazard prediction and mitigation in which it was stated that (paraphrased) “We had papers on our webpages that talked about the earthquake risk to a particular city, therefore the local community should have known” – I would argue that this is not a good example of effective dissemination. Peer-reviewed articles are an excellent place for ensuring work is scrutinised by the scientific community (fostering rigour and improving science), but publishing in such a medium and then putting it on your personal/department webpage is not effective dissemination. Individual scientists must then consider how to get the results, uncertainties and conclusions from that piece of work and communicate them to all the stakeholders previously identified.
This could include writing a press release, a simple one page summary document in non-technical language that you send to them, giving an oral presentation to a local community or funding agency, writing a blog to keep people informed at all stages of the research, presenting a poster at a conference – or many other ways.
Open access (normally working whereby the author of a paper pays to ensure that an article can be accessed by anybody, and not just those who have a subscription to a particular journal) is a much debated and discussed element of dissemination at the moment. The costs of publishing in an open access journal can genuinely be a problem for some research groups/authors – however, I would argue that where at all possible, authors should be seeking to publish in an open-access format – particularly when funded by the taxpayer. All those undertaking research funded by bodies such as NERC, EPSRC, ESRC (and others) must identify the UK Taxpayer as a major stakeholder in their work, and thus consider how best to disseminate their work to this stakeholder. Publishing work in a format where many of them cannot access it is does not aid dissemination.
The final consideration with dissemination, is whose responsibility is it? One train of thought may be that in undertaking research and producing a publication you have ensured that there is a record of the work in the scientific literature – and therefore you have done your part. It is the responsibility of others to check the body of literature to come across your work. I would argue that we need to take a more proactive approach to dissemination, and exercise greater social responsibility. If undertaking research on hazards in a particular region, the researchers have a moral responsibility to communicate effectively their findings to those policymakers who are responsible for the safety of communities. Although we cannot force individuals or governments to act on findings, we must take the position of advocates/lobbyists to ensure that they have access to (and understood) the relevant information – and can at lease make their decisions based on an understanding of this.
This article does not aim to give you a step-by-step guide to dissemination, or to answer all the questions posed above. Hopefully it gives you some food for thought though, and will help you to consider how to be pro-active about dissemination and do it in an effective manner. We’d love to hear your thoughts and comments (using the box below), including examples of effective dissemination in your own departments or research.