Insights Xchange: Conversations Shaping Academic Research

Public Engagement in Research with Charlie Rapple

May 08, 2022 ScienceTalks Season 1 Episode 11
Insights Xchange: Conversations Shaping Academic Research
Public Engagement in Research with Charlie Rapple
Show Notes Transcript

In this episode, Nikesh Gosalia talks to Charlie Rapple about bringing research to a wider audience. They discuss the growing importance of public engagement, as well as the role of publishers and individuals in promoting research to a broader audience. Charlie talks about the inspiration behind Kudos, the changes she has seen in the publishing industry, and her observations of user data in Kudos. She reiterates the importance of a strategic approach to communication, and the benefits of visual and verbal communication over traditional text-heavy information in the digital space.

Charlie Rapple is the Chief Customer Officer and Co-Founder of Kudos, which helps authors maximize the impact of their published work. She is a contributor to The Scholarly Kitchen, an independent blog on scholarly publishing and communication. Charlie has been the Honorary Secretary for UKSG and Associate Director of TBI Communications. She can be reached on LinkedIn

Insights Xchange is a fortnightly podcast brought to you by Cactus Communications (CACTUS). Follow us:


Nikesh Gosalia 00:26:00

Hi, everyone.  Welcome to All Things SciComm.  All Things SciComm is a weekly podcast brought to you by ScienceTalks, a media platform that aims to make science accessible to everyone.  In this program, we dive into the latest from the sci-tech world.  Let's get started with today's episode.

Today, I am chatting with Charlie Rapple.  Charlie is the Chief Customer Officer and Co-founder of Kudos, an organization which helps researchers explain and communicate their work to generate impact.  She is also one of the chefs at the scholarly kitchen, the go to for most of our listeners to get the latest updates in scholarly publishing.

Welcome, Charlie.


Charlie Rapple 00:01:08

Hello!  Thank you for having me.


Nikesh Gosalia 00:01:11

I, you know, obviously know a fair bit about Kudos.  We have spoken in the past as well, Charlie, but when you co-founded Kudos maybe about 10 years ago, there wasn't much talk about research impact or research communication.  So, I am just curious to know what inspired you back then.  I think all our listeners would like to hear about your journey into scholarly publishing, and especially why you are so passionate about science communication.


Charlie Rapple 00:01:35

Yes, I really am passionate about science communication.  And I think that stems from I have worked in the sector for about 20, 25 years now.  And originally, I worked in the sort of technology side of things putting content online for scholarly publishers.  And I became really aware that quite a lot of the content wasn't being used, wasn't being downloaded, wasn't being read.

And I began to see that there was a gap there, that it was a challenge really around marketing and communication, that not enough people are finding their way to research online.  So, one part of my passion stems from just wanting to make sure that all that great research that is online, and available in one way or another is actually being found and read and acted on.

And then, that led me gradually to start to be really focused on broader audiences beyond academia.  And sort of a pattern emerged for wanting to open up research to the wider world, not in the sense of open access necessarily, more in the sense of plain language and wanting to make sure that wider audiences can understand what's emerging out of research, and what those advances are, and what the kind of implications are for them, what the potential benefits could be.  I became increasingly interested in how we could help more people find and understand and act on research within academia but also beyond it.

And then, a final sort of part of it, I think, was just about wanting to help researchers themselves to achieve greater influence, greater recognition for them to find ways and have the support they need for the great research to be put into practice more often and then to be recognized for the advances that they are driving.


Nikesh Gosalia 00:03:22

Very interesting!  Thank you for that, Charlie.  And just with the time that you have spent within the industry, what kind of major shifts have you noticed in the publishing space?  I am sure there have been many.


Charlie Rapple 00:03:34

Yes.  There is the sort of really obvious things like, you know, all research is now available online, pretty much which wasn't the case at the beginning of my career.  And there has obviously been a big focus on open access in our sector, which sort of was really early days when I started out and has become sort of universally known and expected now.

I think the other thing that is really shifting is this sort of growing focus on public engagement and that was something I felt personally.  But I have also seen that emerging more in obviously the way that funders are looking at research and the communication of research and the implications for institutions, and for publishers too I think there's interesting trends now with more publishers beginning to see themselves having a role in public engagement where they might once have felt they were focused really on just making sure that other academics could find research and act on it.

I think now, there is beginning to be a sense that actually publishers have got the skills and possibly some duty and responsibility too to help make sure that wider audiences can engage with research and find it and understand it.  So, I think that aside from the sort of digital and open aspects of things, I think that the broader impacts piece is the other major development that I have noticed in the last few years.


Nikesh Gosalia 00:50:00

No, and I agree with you, Charlie.  I mean, probably I am a relative newcomer in the industry.  I mean, I have spent probably, you know, what, yeah, 14 to 15 years.  But specifically, I guess, over the last 5 to 6 years, you know, we are hearing so much around the importance of impact public engagement like you rightly said, that real return on all the research funding, and just the digital savviness that, you know, we see with not just the researchers, but academic societies, publishers, a lot of the other stakeholders.

I just had a question when you were talking about some of the changes that you have seen.  At a broader level, I have seen UK has been a leader in terms of, you know, just impact with the Research Excellence Framework.  Would you agree, I mean, they still continue to do fantastic job in terms of leading or do you think there are areas which just as a whole that we can improve on?


Charlie Rapple 00:06:02

Yeah.  I think we are heading in, what I feel is, the right direction by focusing or putting more attention on the role and the value of research in the wider world.  And I think that the UK approach to that has had to be sort of distilled down into processes and frameworks that perhaps themselves are in need of a little bit more nuance.  But the kind of the general driver behind them, I think, is sort of the right goal.  And it's interesting to see that spreading out across the world and lots of other countries also kind of heading in this direction, whether independently or by following the UK.

I think it's exciting to see that.  I think there is a recognition that sort of traditional scholarly publications have an important role.  But that they are not the right medium for the kind of reaching broader audiences.

And I think it's really encouraging to see funders acknowledging that and funders acknowledging the effort and cost and skills involved in reaching broader audiences and beginning to invest in that and going sort of further and faster in requiring and funding communications activities.  And I think we see that in a lot of kind of developed research economies that change is beginning to happen.

I think we are seeing that with scholarly societies as well.  Beginning to make the transition from seeing public engagement as about attracting people to come and work in the field, beginning now also to see that they can have a role, or they are well placed to help train researchers to communicate to broader audiences or support them in doing that, and to kind of centrally explain and promote advances in the field.

And I think that word promotion is really key.  I think that there is beginning to be a recognition but perhaps not widespread enough that you can't just make information available and assume that it will be found and read and acted on.  We are in a sea of two million new academic publications every year.  And Lord knows what number of wider pieces of information we're all being bombarded with every day.  So, you have to do step one and kind of explain your work and make that information available.  But I think that we are beginning now to accept that there are important steps two and three of really trying to get smarter at using tools and channels to reach audiences a bit more proactively.

And here, I think the collaboration between different organizations and individuals is really vital.  We have to accept that particularly when we are communicating with broad audiences, they don't need to know about each individual project as an independent unit.  What they want is to kind of have stories there that bring together research from different institutions, or that's been published in different publications from different fields.  What's the story that makes all of that meaningful to a broader audience?  What's the kind of overall narrative around it that we can be communicating?

So, it does take quite a different approach to how we have traditionally communicated research.  And we do still need to publish the results of each project and make sure that the methodology, the findings, the recommendations are accessible for each project.  But there is a different job to be done that I think we are increasingly recognizing as being really important if research is to achieve its potential.


Nikesh Gosalia 00:09:46

Absolutely!  And I really liked the fact that you mentioned that promotion is an important word and the fact that a lot of stakeholders in the industry start beginning to accept that research promotion, public engagement are really important aspects.  I have heard you say that a problem with science today is that scientists are expected to achieve broader audiences and impacts.  But they lack the skills or support they need to actually do this in reality.  I just wondering, from your perspective, what do you think institutions, funders, or for that matter societies can do to accelerate and expand the support that they provide in this area?


Charlie Rapple 00:10:28

Yeah.  I think it's, as I say, we are sort of heading in the right direction with what we are trying to achieve.  But some of our goals are a little bit ahead of where we, as a community, as a sector are at in terms of our ability to deliver on that.  So, there is a sort of gap opening up between what we want to achieve and how well we want research to be communicated and whether all the different players involved have actually got the ability to do those things.

And like I say, I think we are kind of accepting that the traditional scholarly publications aren't the right way to achieve those broader impacts.  But we haven't yet coalesced around any alternative, much less sort of put appropriate levels of expectation, requirement, funding around that.  So, I think there is more for funders to do.

We are starting to see funders, you know, the NSF and the NIH in the US, for example, really do have sections of every grant that says, you know, what are you going to do to communicate this to a broader audience?  How much money are you expecting to have for that, and it's something in the order of kind of 10% of grant value is now being put into the communication of the research to broader audiences.  I think we will see more in that direction sort of stronger expectations from funders and stronger commitment and support for the kinds of communications we need to do.

I think at Kudos, we capture a lot of data around what kinds of communications people do, and what audiences they reach.  I think this continued sort of scientific approach to analyze, and communication is really important, because we can't just keep kind of throwing spaghetti at the wall.  We have to make sure that we are being strategic in how we communicate and thinking about who are the audiences for a given piece of research?  Who is going to benefit?  Who do we need to act on the findings here?  And then, what is the best way to explain to them what we want them to do?  And what is the best way to get that in front of them.

I think this kind of more strategic approach is going to be necessary.  I think we will see funders starting to support that more actively by stipulating more about what they expect researchers to do in that area.  And committing to funding more of those activities so that it isn't just a byproduct or an afterthought, that it really becomes central to how the research is communicated.


Nikesh Gosalia 00:12:57

Thanks, Charlie.  You briefly touched upon one of the major shifts that have happened is just the growth in terms of open access.  In one of your LinkedIn posts you said, Open Access creates losers as well as winners.  Can you please elaborate on that?


Charlie Rapple 00:13:13

Yes.  That was a bit controversial.  I think in that context, I was talking about a number of things, really.  I think partly that was in relation to an event with UKSG, which is an organization I am really closely involved with, which was looking at things like the economics and the power structures in academia.  And whether those in some fields benefit from open access but others maybe don't, or even, I think we were also looking at things like whether open access has been slightly constructed around the needs of developed countries and the researchers in developed countries.  And maybe those benefits don't accrue and even disadvantages accrue to researchers in developing countries.

So, it was a sort of a poster or a comment that I made in quite a specific context.  But actually, I mean, I do also personally recognize that open access is not a panacea.  It doesn't solve all the problems that we have with research, communication, and impact.

And sometimes it feels almost like it's a diversion or a sort of red herring that I think things have got conflated under the concept of open access.  I think the most important thing is that everyone should be able to understand research to understand its relevance, its implications for them, its recommendations for them.  And that's not the same as everyone being able to access research papers.

I think those two things have been conflated and that the focus on access may be drawing resources or aspirations away from the focus on understanding which I think is equally important.  I think it's not exactly about losers or winners, but I do think we have to recognize that open access is only going to be able to solve quite a specific problem about researchers having access to the information they need to continue to advance in fields and that the wider problems we have about engagement and impact of research are not really tackled by open access per se.


Nikesh Gosalia 00:15:19

I know for a fact, Kudos offers a variety of services, a variety of products.  And as a result, it offers publishers access to a lot of user data.  Any interesting trends that you have noticed maybe after reviewing the data?


Charlie Rapple 00:15:36

Yeah, for sure.  Sort of tapping into what I was saying earlier, actually, we capture this quite unique data about what is it that researchers do to communicate their research?  How are they explaining it to people?  Which channels are they using to publicize the fact that they have got some new research now out?  And by capturing all that information, we are starting to see, you know, which of those channels have actually brought more people in to view some research.  And I think one of the things that we continue to see and that has been really interesting is that the nature of how we do this means that we are tracking not only public channels, like social media, or mainstream media, or whatever, but also private channels.

So, we are able to track if somebody has sent an email explaining that their new piece of work is available, we can see how many people clicked on the links in those emails.  And how many people therefore came to look at research based on an email, or we can do it with the offline things as well.  So, you can put Kudos links into posters and postcards and business cards and things like that.  We get this quite broad spectrum of different channels that people are using, much of which has been sort of like the bottom of the iceberg before.  We have been aware of the digital and publicly visible activities in the top of the iceberg but kind of less able to know what's happening under the water kind of thing.

I think that's one of the things that we have really been very interested to see is that actually people obviously still use quite a lot of the more established ways of communicating.  They still send each other emails.  They still go to conferences and use slides and posters and information sheets and handouts and things like that.

And that those more long-term established channels are actually as effective, if not more effective, often is what we see than some of the more modern things like social media, partly.  You know, obviously, there are people who are real social media stars.  They have built a big network.  Everything they post gets lots of activity and lots of clicks.  But if you are not that social media star, and if you have not had the kind of appetite or ability to build up a great big network, then actually your networks are much more likely to be email based and person-to-person based.

And so, it's really interesting to see that for most researchers, the most effective way of building people coming to look at their work, it is through some of those kinds of private and offline channels that have historically been more difficult to track.

So, that's a lot of the kind of insights that we generate, that are enabling publishers to guide researchers a bit more strategically about making them suggestions of what they should do, rather than sort of saying, "Well, you should be using social media, here's how," it's kind of like, well, actually, you are going to do just as well by putting a link in your email signature, here's how to do that.  So, it's about making the support we give to researchers as effective as possible.


Nikesh Gosalia 00:18:32

Moving on, and just talking a little bit about researchers, Charlie, and from our perspective, we have seen that a lot of the Early Career Researchers or ECR as we call them, are getting more interested in digital formats.  They are more social media savvy.  And clearly, just like all of us, probably, their consumption patterns are also changing.  Is that a similar trend that you have seen and maybe is there anything specific or a specific tip that comes to your mind in terms of when you think about early career researchers?


Charlie Rapple 00:19:08

Yeah, I think I have been doing a lot of experimentation around this in the last year or two, actually.  I think there are two sources of evidence that can help guide this.  We know that information is more memorable, when we have had it conveyed to us in different ways, so verbally as well as visually, so that there are things like that, that provide the basis for some of the work that we are doing here.

I think there is also a very sort of a prosaic reality that if you communicate web content with images, it will get more highly ranked in the algorithms for Twitter or Google or whatever.  There are lots of reasons for trying to communicate research outside of the kind of traditional text heavy approaches.  I think as well as making it more memorable and making it more visible to people, it's also good because it really – when we are using a less text-heavy format, we really do have to kind of trim down what we say.  We haven't got the space to get into all the detail.  And so, it really helps us to focus on the sort of, what are the main implications of this piece of research?  Or what do I want everybody to do as a consequence of what I have learned?

I think there is something really valuable in that.  There is the sort of process of breaking down the process of research and communicating information almost in a sort of triaged way.  So, it's like we will draw people in with, "Look, basically, this is what this was about, and why it's important and how, what you should know about what I have learned."  And then, people with different information needs can drill down a bit further as people who want to kind of explore the data and are qualified to be able to validate that, "Great, you can carry on reading and have a look at this information.  Or if you want to know how to replicate this experiment to build on it, you know, great, you can go and look at the full paper and dig up the methods piece or whatever."

But I think that there is a role to be played by sort of more high-level verbal and visual communications that can then engage a much broader audience – academics and non-academics.  And then, people can choose their own pathway onwards from there.  But yeah, I think, again, it's sort of about accepting that traditional communications methods don't fit well into modern communication styles and preferences.  And they still have a place but if we really want to maximize it and kind of optimize the reach and the power of research, we have to accept that there are more ways to do it now.  And just sticking to the old ways isn't going to take us all the way.


Nikesh Gosalia 00:21:53

Absolutely!  I agree with you.