My approach to academic publishing is focused on its importance for communicating what you have learned from your research with others. I also argue that writing (and publishing) for scholarly audiences is important and is often quite different than what you would write for practitioners, activists, policymakers, or other wider audiences (see What is the point of publishing peer-reviewed articles if you care about changing things out there in the world?). Given that you have limited time for this activity, and that publishing for scholarly audiences is often valued more highly in the various evaluation processes that ensure you can keep doing this work, how do you think about the relationship between the kinds of things you might write to advance knowledge in your academic field and the kinds of things you might write to communicate with particular kinds of people outside of academia who could use that knowledge?
Scholarly then wider
In some instances, there is a good case to be made for publishing for scholarly audiences first, and then writing other kinds of outputs for practitioners, policy makers, activists, or other wider audiences. This is the primary model used in clinical medical research and has been adopted as a model by other disciplines. Where this model dominates, there are likely to be structural effects like the separation of basic and applied/clinical research, support for research syntheses and meta-analyses, publications designed to communicate research knowledge to practitioners and policy makers, and possibly professional knowledge brokers. Practitioners and policy makers in these fields will also likely consider learning about the recent research in their field as a professional development activity and may have various incentives or rewards for making time to do this through their employers or through their own professional associations and accrediting bodies.
Because this model is relatively well understood, it is likely that those trying to encourage wider impact (or whatever it gets called where you live) are basing their policies on this type of relationship. This may mean that what counts as evidence of wider impact is limited in particular ways and might even privilege particular types of non-scholarly audiences. This model assumes that what is being communicated to those beyond academia is the conclusions (results, analysis, synthesis) of research at a stage where it is agreed by the scholarly community to be a fairly stable relatively universal truth. This kind of assumption can also mean that this kind of wider communication is considered inappropriate for those earlier in their careers because they have not yet established their scholarly credentials.
Clearly there are a whole set of epistemoligical assumptions here that may or may not be in line with those underpinning your work. Furthermore this kind of approach can lead to a patronising attitude to (potential) research users, especially if you allow yourself to see the learning and benefit mainly going in one direction.
Applied, clinical, or policy oriented research
Related to the first model, it is also apparent that at a certain point in the development of scholarly knowledge, there is enough existing research to begin to do research focused on how that knowledge might be applied in other contexts. You might get into a particular line of research at a point where there is a strong basis for applied work to be done and focus your research in that area. The scholarly knowledge you are advancing is knowledge of how best to apply particular findings. Your scholarly publishing may be primarily for an audience of other applied researchers though you have an expectation that once you’ve got a viable solution, you will also be communicating with potential users. The example in my previous article is of this type.
Research on knowledge mobilisation (aka knowledge transfer or commercialization) has demonstrated that research use by practitioners and policy makers is much more likely to happen if the users are involved in the research from the outset. In particular, involving research users in the formulation of research questions and in research design leads to a greater likelihood that the outcomes will have a direct impact on policy or practice. Some funders have developed programs requiring academic and research user partners (some will call these “industry partners” but that really depends on the type of research being funded and the most likely partners).
This kind of research can be really interesting for all concerned, but only if you are really partners. When I worked as a policy officer for the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada on a big consultation back in 2004-05, community partners and policy makers reported that they had had a lot very disappointing experiences that left them feeling like the researchers had only partnered with them to get access to difficult to access groups. Their perspectives were not taken seriously in the design or analysis phases. Often the outputs that would be most useful to them were clearly a lower priority for the researchers and sometimes were not written at all. While there are a lot of examples of good partnerships, the view from the research users was that you had to kiss a lot of frogs to find your prince. It made them quite reluctant to enter into new partnerships with academic researchers.
If this is the kind of work you want to do, you have to really commit to partnership. You will need to establish trust which may involve a long period of relationship building before you can even talk about specific research projects. Once engaged in research, you will need to learn things from your partners. You are not a missionary coming in to save them with the truth. You may face challenging situations in which you need to adapt your methodology (or develop new methodologies) to ensure that the resulting knowledge is valid, reliable, and relevant to the objectives of the users. This kind of of research can be really intellectually challenging. Some of those intellectual challenges will provide the basis for publications that your scholarly peers are interested in. However, your priority for publications will likely be those things more directly related to the project objectives, which are focused on user needs. As I’ve said, it may be that getting validation of the basic research elements from your scholarly peers is important to really effective dissemination to research users but it may be that the top priority is something else and you write those outputs later.
The problem for you may be that this level of challenge is likely to be underestimated and thus undervalued in scholarly circles. This is where the gap between the nice new policies of your institution and the actual implementation of those policies can become apparent. As one client said, it is pretty insulting to be told by a senior academic administrator that your wider impact work is understood as a bunch of lunches with policymakers and that you aren’t going to get that full professorship until you publish an academic monograph. (She got hired as a full professor by another institution with a better understanding of the work. That administrator got moved out of the research leadership post. Not all institutions are the same even in the same overarching policy context. Change takes time.)
Different things for different audiences
Most of the public discussion of wider impact focuses on how research results can be communicated to potential users of those results. However, a discussion I had recently alerted me to another way that your research might be important to those on the ground. If you are researching a current issue with the goal of gaining better understanding of that issue so that you can develop policies, practices, or whatever that may be helpful to those working in that area, you are probably collecting data about the situation that people could use right now. This may be more important in activist circles but it could also be useful in other contexts.
The people on the ground who are dealing with this issue right now can probably use better data right now. That information might be useful to support arguments to get more funding or other resources, to demonstrate that existing policies are harmful and should be stopped (even if we don’t necessarily know what to replace them with), or to inform changes they can make to their current practice. While scholarly journals are not necessarily interested in your data, thinking about your data collection work as akin to investigative journalism and publishing it in those kinds of outlets may be a good way to make an impact early in your research process.
Your scholarly publishing is likely to focus on making sense of your observations and data. There may be opportunities to present the data itself but these are likely to be lower status work-in-progress type publications — conference papers or posters, workshops, perhaps a research note in a journal. Your academic colleagues will value this largely as indicative of more interesting advancements of knowledge to come. Activists and other research users may also be interested in the analysis and explanation that you will eventually publish (and hopefully communicate to them) but that’s not all they are interested in and you don’t have to wait that long to give them something useful.
Thom Davies (whose query on Twitter about what the point of scholarly publishing was got me back to writing about this topic) provided me with an example. One of his current projects is “an Antipode ‘Scholar-Activist’ project looking at border violence against refugees trapped in the Balkans.” After our initial discussion on Twitter in September 2018, he realised that while he and his collaborators on this project might not be ready to publish anything for his scholarly peers yet, he did have something important to say. They published a piece in Open Democracy about what they have observed. In a conversation via Twitter private message, he told me that thinking about research and writing as a process really helped him see the value of that piece not only for the activists on the ground but also for thinking through what they had observed with a view to eventually being able to analyse and make sense of the data both to advance scholarly knowledge and further inform policy, practice, and activism around migration and refugees.
If you are working in a highly emotionally and/or politically sensitive area like this it may take a long time before you feel comfortable publishing scholarly analysis of your research for your scholarly peers. There are real ethical dilemmas here that may or may not be mitigated by time. In the prologue to Telling Sexual Stories (Routledge, 1994) Ken Plummer talks about his experience of not publishing from a funded research project directly though the questions it raised had informed this particular book more than a decade later. I’m sure he is not alone. You are likely to be under pressure from your institution (and possibly your funder, though they may be more sympathetic to the ethical and political arguments) to publish quickly in recognised scholarly venues. You will have to make some difficult decisions about this which may have implications for your career even if that is not your primary concern.
Probably a combination
There is no one right way to do this work. The three approaches I have outlined here do not exhaust all the possibilities (I welcome your thoughts in the comments). Your research programme will span many years. Your focus will shift over that time. You may find that what is appropriate and possible in 10 years is quite different from what is appropriate and possible now.
The urgency of the questions that have set you on this path is likely at odds with the pace of the research and knowledge creation process. There may be opportunities to publish some things quickly and in some circumstances there may be compelling reasons to do so. In other situations, it may be prudent for all concerned to wait until you have more data and a better understanding. Keep your communicative goals at the forefront. Remember that these decisions will affect the relationship between you and your research partners or other research users. Your vision for your research will guide your decisions, even if it does not align perfectly with your employer’s expectations or reward systems.