Writing for scholarly journals and writing for wider impact are not mutually exclusive.
The impact your work has outside of academia is partly dependent on the quality of the work and the respect that work has within relevant academic networks. Yes, we want evidence based policy and practice, but we also want that evidence to be rigorous. Rigorous evidence develops over time, in long asynchronous debates that happen in scholarly journals.
Furthermore, sometimes the prestige of the journal in which you publish your academic work can greatly increase the visibility of your research to the wider audiences you most want to influence.
In the past several months 2 people in my academic circles have had publications in really prestigious academic journals. When I say prestigious, I mean prestigious: New England Journal of Medicine, Nature Climate Change, etc. Those journals are not only well known and respected amongst academics in the field; they are also well known and respected by practitioners, policy makers, and the general public.
Both are full professors and well known in their fields, with large research grants and an impressive publication record, including A-list journals in their fields. Neither would have submitted to the particular prestigious journal if it hadn’t been for a co-author suggesting it. And both assumed they’d be rejected but that the process would be quick so there was no harm in trying. In both cases the article was accepted, albeit after several rounds of revision.
As surprised as they were to be accepted, the real surprise was how much more attention an article gets in one of these journals.
Those journals have their own plan for maximizing impact, within and beyond academia. They sometimes create other outputs based on your article to make it easier for practitioners, policy makers, and others to get the main points even if they are short of time.
For example, the New England Journal of Medicine creates a video for the lead story in each issue. Those videos are viewed a lot, presumably by doctors who wish they had time to read all the new medical research coming out but can find time to watch a short video. The videos are professionally produced by the journal. You get to review the script but they do the work.
They have a media and communications policy. They manage information about what will be published and when. The publication date is embargoed. They have a network of journalists and news organizations that get advance notice and press releases.
Don’t neglect this possibility
I know it feels presumptuous or showy, even for full professors with big grants and impressive publication records. However, if your vision for your research involves wider impact and you are doing work that is relevant to one of these highly prestigious journals, you should be looking for the right opportunity to submit something.
This is probably a mid- to late career thing. It doesn’t happen overnight. Rigorous evidence develops over time, in long asynchronous debates that happen in scholarly journals. You may have done a lot of research yourself to get to the point where you have findings appropriate to this kind of journal.
If you are earlier in your career, you can’t skip right to this stage though your research may be the thing that pulls together a lot of work others have done and moves it to the point where it is appropriate to this kind of journal. You may also be the co-author who suggests that the team consider this kind of publication.
Whatever your personal stage of career, the research that warrants this kind of publication will be based on a solid program of research that has been building for a while.
Getting the full benefit of this kind of publication
The actual impact depends a lot on what you do with this level of exposure. The exposure is just the beginning. There is a lot of work to be done at the time of publication and afterwards to optimize the benefit.
It’s a good idea to work with the media and communications officer at your institution, and with a media consultant, to prepare for the release date. You will get calls from journalists.
- Figure out how you are going to manage that and block off time in your calendar after the embargo date and after the publication date.
- Make a plan to contact any journalists you have worked with before. You know they are interested in your work. They will be interested in this prestigious publication.
- Write a press release.
- Prepare your key messages and make sure you know how to talk about them without them getting lost in the details.
- Identify the possible critiques and have solid responses without getting defensive.
If your work is in an applied field, you may also get email from practitioners who want to use the technique you’ve just published about. You might have to change your plans for when and how you develop training manuals and programmes, and so on. You’ll have to figure out how to capture all this interest and communicate with them about when something they can use will be available.
If your university provides support for commercialization and/or an incubator program go talk to someone there. Even if you don’t want to “commercialize”, that office will be able to help you with alternatives like setting up a non-profit organization, and securing the types of funding that can move your applied research into practice.
This is hard work
The sheer quantity of communication work and new learning you need to do around the time of publication is really scary and overwhelming. Everything happens fast. But it’s scary and overwhelming in the good way. Things you wanted to happen as a result of your research, but had accepted may not, are now possible.
You need to learn how to do new things. You need different kinds of support, and possibly different kinds of funding. That support is out there. You will be very busy while you figure this stuff out, and deal with the immediate response, but then you are being successful in a way you might never have imagined possible.
You may need to be ruthless with your other commitments in the short term to create space in your schedule to do this stuff. You may need to un-commit to things, delegate things you usually do yourself, say no to other opportunities, or completely change the plan you had for the next year. It will be worth it.
Having a vision for your own research and taking the steps necessary to build the foundation that will eventually underpin this kind of work is your best strategy. Patience, hard work, and then keeping an eye out for opportunities and taking them (even when they feel risky) will pay off in ways you can’t imagine from where you are now.