How researchers get heard
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Access vs. Accessibility

“I want to reach multiple audiences.” Every research communicator hears that over and over from researchers.

I’m not going to do what most communicators do — smile sweetly, stopping at the brink of condescension, while inwardly rolling my eyes until my retinas detach.

Wanting to reach multiple audiences is a great thing — not to be discouraged. But when researchers say the sentence “I want to reach multiple audiences,” they usually mean “reach them with a single vehicle.” As in: “I want to reach multiple audiences with this book … with this op-ed … with this video. And I don’t want to do much more than that.”

And so our troubles begin. Because rare is the combination of topic, platform, vehicle and (let’s say it) expert with enough authority to reach all those audiences.

This hit home when I was reading Rachel Toor’s recent interview in the The Chronicle of Higher Education with Eve Ewing, a sociologist of education at the University of Chicago as well as poet, activist, podcaster, Marvel Comics author, Twitter star and overall big deal.

Toor asked Ewing about the challenges writing her 2018 book “Ghosts in the Schoolyard,” about racism and inequity in Chicago’s public schools. “Ghosts in the Schoolyard” has gotten Ewing a ton of attention — she was a guest on “The Late Show with Trevor Noah,” for instance, to talk about the book. Ewing told Toor one big challenge was trying to write “Ghosts” for “multiple audiences whose needs might be at odds with one another” — academics, college students and teachers, informed citizens, and what she calls “school folks” (educators, organizers and community members).

That’s a lot of different people. You can hope to hit some of all those people with a single book — but it probably won’t happen and not at the critical mass of numbers needed to change what you want to change.

Fortunately, Ewing tells Toor that her most important audience was school folks — and that she made a “conscious decision” to reach them in writing the book:

In writing the book, I made a conscious decision: If I ever found myself at a fork in the road regarding those audiences, it would be that final group that would win out. I really needed the book to work for them. And that was scary because I truly didn’t know if academic colleagues would regard this book with disdain or disregard, or think I just wasn’t very smart because I didn’t write a much more opaque book.

For some academics, inaccessibility is the coin of the realm. For some you prove your expertise by restricting your own legibility to as few people as possible. I just took a deep breath and accepted that this was the choice I was making and if those people didn’t like the book, c’est la vie.

Ewing’s choice was a brave one, as it usually is in academics. The confusion here is that, while Ewing might have reached all those audiences with her accessible messages from the book, she almost certainly hasn’t reached those audiences through the book alone.

Accessibility is a prerequisite for access to your insights. It doesn’t guarantee we will access them.

The book is the passport to the lands — TV, podcasts, op-ed pages, etc. — where those audiences might first encounter you and the ideas and stories and solutions you’ve detailed in the book.

Ewing is correct: Inaccessibility is the coin of the realm for some academics. But accessibility alone is not the coin of the realm. Accessibility simply allows you to buy passage to the realms where the others congregate. Reaching multiple audiences — accessing them and allowing them to access you — requires a strategy and a campaign, using frequency, persistence, showing up in many vehicles and drawing upon your fungal network.

Works should be accessible. But getting and granting access is a different piece of work.