As recently as a decade ago, almost all research communications were at best tagged onto the end of a project or publication. Coverage was limited to press releases, media communications, posts in niche discussion forums, conference and poster presentations. The financial implications of such activities were individualized costs tied to conferences and poster production, with the benefit of perhaps going somewhere nice to present findings, network and discover other new research. This model still exists, but concerns over the climate and exclusionary impacts of academic travel, coupled with pandemic restrictions, suggest it has peaked.
More recently, the affordances of the Web 2.0 media landscape: social media networks, blogs, video, interactive websites, podcasting have vastly expanded the opportunities to communicate research outputs. It has also changed the tempo of research communication. Blogs and social media have sparked a perpetual open and public conversation around new ideas, methods, pre-prints, funding, ethics, and technology that ranges across the research lifecycle. One consequence of this is that researchers are also less restricted by the gatekeepers of traditional media, as viral videos and blogposts enable new points of access to mainstream audiences.
The issue this raises, as I discussed in a previous blogpost, are the inequalities that emerge, due to unequal access to the time, skills and especially money required to do this well. Researchers and their support teams might have some capacity for ‘comms,’ and they might have skills, but they may also have to learn them first. Small teams and individuals can have impact, but they may also rely on their research being picked up by their institution or other traditional media. Even within departments, a small project can be competing for resources against high-profile and well-resourced work.
As research communications have become more professional, over the past few years my time has been increasingly costed into bids, either as a research communications consultant, or to create research communications outputs. I have seen this demand grow in both the numbers of academics and professional service staff wanting to learn and adopt communications skills. These bids might be for very small sums of money and a small percentage of the total bid, but nevertheless it identifies a few things. Firstly, that a project realizes the importance of communications and that it is willing to dedicate funds to those activities. It also shows a recognition that by costing communication activities into research they are in fact an ongoing part of the research process.
However, despite growing recognition, it remains a common problem in the current system that communications are an afterthought, rather than embedded from the outset. It might be fine for a piece of work to have a couple Tweets to promote a new paper after it is published, after all the financial and labor cost are low and not all papers require anything more. Yet increasingly researchers, project managers and funders are wanting more and that comes at greater cost. Funders increasingly see the importance and value of research communications, because they benefit from their funded work being discussed and shared. The likes of The NIHR and Wellcome Trust’s progressive approach to open research includes supporting researchers in disseminating work and applying for funding to assist with that. Key to this is trying to obtain the funds sooner, rather than later and where possible at the initial bid stage. This can be tricky when there are multiple co-applicants on one piece of research and percentages carved up based on each person’s input. One percent of a £100,000 bid will not obtain much communications support. It certainly will not be near enough to commission an animation or video, but it is a start. For professional support staff and junior academics, it might be enough to buy a little time or purchase the license for a creative digital package.
Ideally, to create substantial communications outputs (podcasts, videos, animations, infographics) you need at least five times that amount. In some cases you may be able to go back to a funder and apply for more money. This highlights differences across disciplines, especially as in STEM researchers are often able to bid for greater sums of money and have a buffer to cost in communications activities compared to smaller, more restrictive funding calls. How you spend that money then depends on what you want to achieve, how you want to do that and what kind of resources you have in-house. In terms of sustaining those activities, more thought needs to be given to in-house training. A detangling of marketing and communication roles would be a good start, although these roles are in some ways mutually beneficial. Whereas external communications consultants are more likely to create bespoke communications outputs, they will cost more.
Whilst it can be hard to squeeze your research into this crowded bandwidth, it does not mean you have to compete with studies and academics who have become minor media celebs or featured in national newspapers. It might just be enough to engage in the right level of activities and with the right audiences, even if that is on a very local level; It can still be impactful. Not everything you create has to be Hollywood quality, it depends on the audience, your expertise and the impact you are trying to generate and ultimately how much money you have. The latter can be addressed by factoring these activities into your research bids as standard practice.