The politics of trust and legitimacy: How to disseminate research beyond academia
Trust and legitimacy are vital components of disseminating research beyond academia, which is increasingly being encouraged and indeed expected of Early Career Researchers (ECRs). This advice section was written by two ECRs who have focussed on different ways of engaging with audiences outside of academia. One of us (Zoe) has engaged with government and non-government organisations to improve health and wellbeing of people experiencing social disadvantage, such as homelessness. The other (Hema) has worked closely with community groups on collective action in Malaysia and disseminated research to activists, civil society leaders, and the general public audience. Below, we share with you five points of advice, based on our learnings so far.
1. Know your audience
It is really important to get to know and understand who it is that you want to engage with your research. Ask yourself: What is the purpose of your research? How do want your research to have an impact? Who will benefit from your research findings (e.g., policy makers, clinical populations, members of government, non-governmental organisations)?
Once you have thought about these questions, start building relationships that allow you to engage with your target audience. Being open about your wants while simultaneously listening to their concerns is key to developing trust and legitimacy. Building a partnership based on mutual respect becomes crucial to ensuring that your research is not only reaching your target audience but also relevant and responsive to their needs. Once you have an understanding of their needs, you can formulate a strategy that communicates a clear message in an appropriate format that aligns with those needs.
2. Engage the community in the process
People are not passive recipients of knowledge. It is essential to invite your audience to engage with the research process and your findings so that the community becomes co-creators of knowledge. This form of communication can be done from the beginning of the research project and allows for collaboration with your audience. Further, beyond publication in a scientific paper, knowing that participants’ responses will be used for an important purpose or address a real-world need, can be a way to empower participants.
To navigate these spaces, it is important to constantly negotiate your identity and clarify your position. As an academic, you are not always trusted. Community members can be sceptical about your goals (and for good reason – there is a long history of researchers “using” people to advance the scientific agenda). Research priorities do not always match the priorities of community groups – however to truly have an impact, it is important to find ways to address the needs of community group in future endeavours.
3. Know how to effectively communicate research
In presenting my (Hema’s) research to a room of activists and NGOs leaders in Malaysia, I had a few slides of regression graphs – this was a silly mistake. It was not only irrelevant but also made the presentation less interesting and relatable to the group.
Think from the perspective of what your audience will find most important or helpful, rather than what you want to say. If engaging with a non-academic audience, avoid jargon and focus on the questions the audience is interested in. Think about ways you can effectively communicate your key take-away points. This can include more traditional styles like visual aids and presentations, forums and meetings, written reports and summaries, and engaging with the media. Remember that we live in the digital age; there are many opportunities to engage with others on social media, blogs, and personal websites.
It takes practice to get good at disseminating your research – so put yourself out there. For example, we also wrote opinion pieces and have been interviewed on radio stations – these opportunities were sought out by submitting a pitch to several media outlets. Needless to say, I never spoke about regression analyses again!
4. Recognise what’s holding you back
It can be a daunting process to start disseminating research in non-academic outlets, particularly for ECRs. In addition to not knowing when or how to start, you are opening your research up to public debate and criticism (which reading the comments sections of articles can attest to).
Although I (Zoe) have spent a significant portion of my time in meetings with community partners, writing reports and recommendations for policy and practice, as well as discussing and implementing changes in services, I still feel like an “imposter” when discussing my research. One of the lessons I learnt is that I needed to overcome not feeling like an “expert” so I could share findings and implement evidence-based practice.
An important part of that is also knowing you don’t have to have all the answers. For example, one of the things activists and civil society leaders wanted to know from me (Hema) was what they can do better. How can they mobilize more people? What strategy was effective and what could backfire? Unfortunately, the answers are not simple or clear. However, these experiences pushed us to ask research questions that would get closer to answering these questions.
5. Build your profile and start now!
While there is an increased focus on engagement and the ‘real world impact’ of research, how to do this and the immediate benefits of research dissemination beyond academia are not always clear. However, the legitimacy of research is increased when we disseminate widely the knowledge that people have invested in, and by disseminating more broadly, that research has more potential to be meaningful.
Now more than ever, we are able to use a range of different approaches to broadcast our research to the wider community. Build yourself a public profile that increases your legitimacy and trustfulness. This includes maintaining an online presence via social media accounts (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn), researcher identifiers (e.g., ORCID), academic social networks (e.g., ResearchGate), and personal or professional websites (e.g., your researcher profile at your institution).
Hopefully this article has provided some insights into this process and we wish you all the best in your endeavours!
- By Dr Zoe Walter and Dr Hema Preya Selvanathan
This post was previously published on the International Society for Political Psychology, Early Career Committee Newsletter.
All researchers in the Social Change Lab contribute to the "Do Good" blog. Click the author's name at the bottom of any post to learn more about their research or get in touch.