Webinar Q&A session: expert responses

The Conversation Africa

1. How time-bound are the contributions to The Conversation? As an illustration, is it possible to criticize the THE 2017 University Rankings, which were released in September?

This is assessed on a case-by-case basis. Although The Conversation remains current in certain areas, in others a time lag isn’t relevant. We haven’t covered specific rankings, though we have published on the bigger issue of rankings and what they’re problematic, particularly for Africa. We might consider another article along these lines if it brought fresh insights and was based on new research.

2. To write for The Conversation, do we need a high impact story?

Not quite sure what’s meant by high impact. But to make clear what our mission is: we take research and knowledge produced within the academy and put it into the public domain. We look for stories that will be of interest to the general public. This includes interesting and useful research that has a bearing on society and policy makers.

3. Caroline, do you have any indication of whether The Conversation is an effective way to get your research picked up in other parts of the world (i.e. republication cross-over between the regions where you are active?)

The Editors across the various editions of The Conversation work very collaboratively, and share their daily newslists. There is frequent cross-over publication between regions, for example by including “From our international editions” in our daily newsletters. In addition, the republication network of The Conversation results in international syndication of the content through The Conversation’s creative commons licence. This results in the US and UK being the 2nd and 3rd highest readership countries of The Conversation Africa’s content.

4. Apologies; I missed the start and so missed the reference to the readability index - is there a particular website or software you use to help with determining the score?

This is inbuilt into our editing suite and isn’t generally available. Sorry!!

Australian Science Media Centre

5. I’m interested in providing media commentary for my subject area. Do you have any advice on how I can make myself better known to the press?

Lyndal Byford: Developing a social media presence is definitely a good idea, as the barrier between traditional media and social media is pretty much disintegrated now.  So if you are following your area and commenting, retweeting, and engaging with stories and individuals, and also following and tweeting some journalists, you can contribute to the news as it’s happening.  It is also worthwhile getting in touch directly with journalists, who are always keen to hear from scientists. They hear from a lot of PR people on a regular basis, but they don't actually hear directly from academics.  So it’s absolutely worth searching online for a journalist, finding someone in a news outlet that you think writes well about your subject and then emailing them directly. Most journalists email addresses are really easy to find but if you can’t find them directly, your media team at your university will definitely know.

If there’s something happening in the media and you feel like you can contribute, contact your press office at your institution and say to them, ‘This is what’s happening in the news today, I work in this area, I’ve got something to say about it,’. A lot of universities and research organisations will be constantly contacting the media with lists of experts that can comment on particular topics.

If there’s a Science Media Centre in your country, which we’re now in Canada, Germany, Australia, New Zealand, the UK and one’s about to open in the US, that organization will be keen to hear from you too.

6. Do you have any recommendations for using your research to influence policy and practice?

Caroline Southey: The first step is to do that piece of translation, to move from the academic paper and the detail of that into an article that is accessible and that people can understand. You would be welcome to work with our editors at The Conversation on this to find the nub of the research which would appeal in the public domain, and to then to write and publish a Conversation article with our support. Then hopefully the follow-on from this would be television or radio interviews or other media opportunities.  I think the first big step is to take that piece of academic work and find a means of making it digestible and creating “a-ha” moments for ordinary people and policy makers. Take the example of the housing story, a piece of research which could have stayed within the academy forever.  But it was also written in a way that addressed a major concern in society, and came up with solutions.  And two very opposite ends of the policy making spectrum followed up on it.

So I would say that that would be the main element to focus on. We tend to find once we’ve been through this process with an academic, they very often use the article that we’ve worked on with them to produce presentations on their thesis, because they have found it a useful exercise in getting their thoughts into a clear and concise form. 

7. Do you have advice for scientists who are working on controversial topics and who may instinctively wish to avoid media attention?

Lyndal Byford: Scientists often ask about the risks of engaging in a story – but rarely think about the risks of not engaging. Just because you don’t get involved does not mean a story won’t still run. Instead the media will fill the vacuum with people less informed, less qualified and often with a specific agenda to push.  Every crisis which propels science into the headlines could be seen as an opportunity to inform and communicate with the public, rather than as a threat. 

The best advice in this area is to do your homework. Find out as much as you can about the program or journalist before you go in to the interview. Think about the worst questions you could be asked – your nightmare scenario, and then plan ways to answer them – don’t just hope you won’t be asked them.

Most importantly stick to the science – don’t be led into areas you don’t feel comfortable commenting on. Scientists are often too nice – answering the question they are asked. You don’t have to.  Just acknowledge the question and move on to what you can say for example… “that’s is a great question and I don’t have an answer for that right now, but what I can say is….” Or “that is really a question for the public/our government/politicians/policy makers/ but what I can say is…” 

Fran Abrams: I think I’d have several pieces of advice on this. First, you may well be right to wish to avoid media attention – it may be that your work is likely to be interpreted in a way you won’t like, and ultimately you can’t stop journalists or anyone else from doing that.

However, it’s quite likely that will happen with or without your input. So it’s better if you take part in the debate and try to get your point of view across in a way you feel is accurate and proper.

I’d say you could do two things to help you do that: First, make contact with one or two responsible journalists covering your field. Ideally you’ll have a story for them – some research findings that you think may make an important contribution to the debate. Then you can start to build relationships. When controversy bubbles up in your area, you might then approach those journalists again with comments.

Sometimes you can get away with just not publicizing controversial findings if you think they may be misinterpreted. But you can’t count on always doing that, so it’s better to be up-front and try to get your messages across via those who will report them accurately and sympathetically.

But… get some media training, and take advice. It can be scary out there, and you don’t have to do it without support.

8. Is it a good idea to get your author featured in an industry story around a controversial topic?

Fran Abrams: I think all the advice from the previous question applies here. Yes, if your author can handle it and has had some media training. An ‘industry story’ suggests to me this would be of interest to the specialist media, and they tend to have a better grasp of the complexities of a subject. But getting your author featured in this way is a great way of raising his or her profile. I’d suggest also that the author might write an article for The Conversation or similar, if the topic is of current interest.

Lyndal Byford: I’m not sure what you mean by an industry story? The media may view someone who has written for industry publications as bias, especially if it was a paid gig, unfairly or not.

My best advice is to be as open as possible with journalists about any potential conflicts of interest. There is nothing the media like more than the hint of a cover-up, declaring all conflicts of interest increases your credibility.