Letting others know about one’s own expertise is now an integral part of a researcher’s professional qualifications.
Three years ago, Nina V. Nygren, a university lecturer in environmental politics at the University of Tampere, wrote a short two-paragraph reply to an opinion piece published in Helsingin Sanomat, Finland’s largest newspaper, reminding readers about the importance of active ways of conserving nature, such as allowing rotting trees to decompose in forests. Soon after the reply was published, Nygren received a phone call from the director of environmental affairs at the mining company Keliber.
The company, which operates in the Ostrobothnia region, had encountered problems because it was about to start mining in an area that is home to moor frogs, a species protected by an EU directive. Nygren’s research cooperative, Tapaus, contacted a leading herpetologist in order to find a way for the mine and frogs to coexist; the frogs now live in new ponds and the environmental licence for the mine is pending.
Nygren thinks that sharing her expertise via different media is an integral part of her job. She has written letters to the editor of newspapers since her teens and she has more than 2,500 followers on Twitter. Furthermore, Nygren is not afraid of being direct: for example, she has sent articles on the protection of the flying squirrel directly to municipal administrators and decision-makers.
“Knowledge does not spread from scientific publications on its own. Universities produce a great deal of information but the effort of disseminating it to those who need it is still often ignored,” Nygren says.
Communication consultants argue that experts should have a clear personal brand these days – a concise description of their know-how maintained by frequent updates on social media.
Researchers also have plenty to learn about personal branding, says researcher and science journalist Tiina Raevaara. Whereas the public were previously able to rely on the nose for news of science journalists and the activity of universities’ press and information offices, researchers must take a more active role in the era of social media.
“The present media and research worlds require that the benefits of research are spelled out to different audiences. This means that researchers must be more active than before. Researchers have the burden of proving that what they are investigating is important and relevant,” Raevaara says.
One can check one’s personal brand by, for example, googling one’s own name. Do the results reflect the image of a serious expert? Do people other than just one’s colleagues know what one’s research is all about?
If not, the dusty old homepages or the text contained on the faculty homepage should be updated and made comprehensible to the person in the street.
“If you want to be in a position where journalists sometimes call and ask you for comments, they should be able to find information about your expertise online,” Raevaara says.
Researchers should be visible on different media. It is worthwhile choosing suitable media according to the intended audience, one’s aims and the way in which one wants one’s message to be conveyed.
Nygren has become an active disseminator of information just by doing it: she has no particular strategy. The topics of her blog posts arise from her need to express her views, and her nature conservation project’s Facebook page disseminates news on environmental protection. In her own Twitter account, she also comments other matters, such as the feminist debate.
“It is easy to talk about matters that are close to my heart. It might be harder to communicate about a project I have not personally started,” Nygren points out.
Nygren considers Twitter to be the most important media for networking with other researchers.
“The British undertake many participatory nature conservation projects; for example, they have built small water containers for gardens where hoverflies can reproduce. Without Facebook or Twitter I would never have heard about many things that happen in my field elsewhere in the world,” Nygren says.
Nygren wrote her doctoral dissertation on the collaborative conservation of the Siberian flying squirrel in urban areas – a heated subject in urban planning in Finland – and she is sometimes approached by the media for interviews. Linking research to people’s everyday lives can be more complicated in some other fields compared to environmental politics. Raevaara gives an example from her own field: genetics.
“If we analyse a specific variation in a single gene and the effect it has on cellular processes, we cannot turn the study into a sensational news story that would attract a lot of interest,” Raevaara says.
One should not forcibly package information in a form that is easily digested by large audiences either. Nevertheless, Raevaara recommends that researchers open their know-how to the wider world; for example, they should publish something other than just scientific texts in English.
Raevaara thinks that marketing one’s expertise also helps to acquire further research funding. Many financiers of research also require that information on how the results will be disseminated is already included in the research funding application.
“Having a widely known name will probably make the foundations granting the research funding read the application more carefully,” Raevaara says.
Time pressures can be the greatest obstacle to researchers’ communication. Conversations on social media and blogs may require a large investment of time.
Raevaara’s advice is to communicate at least a little occasionally rather than not communicating at all. During the workday, one could set aside twenty minutes. This would be sufficient to link one’s research to Twitter with a few accompanying words, or follow up and comment on a few conversations and further distribute colleagues’ messages.
Another obstacle is researchers’ reticence. When one is accustomed to scientific writing practices, it may seem difficult to appear in public in person. Of course, fields where researchers receive hate mail and even death threats are a completely different story.
“Especially researchers who investigate immigration or diets may encounter such harassment,” Raevaara says.
Communications may begin with small steps. One can start a blog or a Twitter account together with one’s research group or faculty. This will mean that the media attention is spread among a larger group of people.
Appearing in public may also give rise to criticism from within the scientific community. A recent study by the Centre for Parliamentary Studies at the University of Turku in Finland shows that media publicity reduces researchers’ credibility among their colleagues. Raevaara thinks that this finding is preposterous.
“Many researchers refuse to be interviewed, so those researchers who are giving the interviews are doing their colleagues’ work for them. If nobody agreed to be interviewed, research results would not be disseminated and scientific knowledge would not be used to explain things,” Raevaara says.
Nygren has not had similar experiences. She thinks that one reason is the practical orientation of her field and its organic relationship to the world outside academia.
“We have a shared understanding that there is no pure science on the one hand and people who popularise it on the other,” Nygren explains.
However, she thinks that the number of peer-reviewed international articles is not a very good yardstick for measuring the productivity of scientific work.
“My goal is to understand the world and change it. Scientific articles are not the best tool for accomplishing that aim,” Nygren says.
Social media and their purposes and audiences
Facebook: In their private profile, researchers can converse with other researchers they have friended. Researchers and research groups may also create their own pages for more inclusive discussions.
Academia.edu and Research Gate: Media for networking with other researchers. These sites are tools for sharing one’s own publications or links and for following up on other researchers and their publications.
Twitter: A medium for quick, short comments that may bring large momentary attention. A good tool for networking.
LinkedIn: A professional profile for gathering work history and projects in one place.
Blogs: A good platform for publishing longer texts; blog posts have a long shelf life. It is worthwhile sharing links to blogs on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.
Text: Mari Valkonen
Photograph: Jonne Renvall