How researchers get heard
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Tuesday Teardown: Direct Authority Quotes

Researchers can make three kinds of quotes that add authority to their outreach content:

  1. Citations of other works, which might or might not be attached to an actual verbatim quote from the source;
  2. Maxims — those over-familiar sounding quotes worn so smooth by so many previous quoters that they’re almost pre-digested; and
  3. Direct authority quotes — quotes from conversations with colleagues or other authorities, used by permission. (I’m considering quotes from your research subjects as evidence for your arguments, not ratifiers from other experts of points you’re trying to make.)

Every researcher uses citations; many resort to maxims. Very few quote directly from other authorities. Direct authority quoting feels to many like a sign of weakness — why call up others and quote them? I’m the one making the argument. Quoting feels so…journalistic.

Exactly. And exactly why you should consider judicious direct quoting of your colleagues and other authorities in your authority content.

Journalists quote because their narratives need the ballast of authority coupled with the immediacy of voice and testimony.

Authorities should quote other authorities — by which I mean, should actually email or call them up and get them on the record — to provide the ballast, credibility and immediacy that the literature alone or the literature combined with maxim can’t provide.

Great example: health economist Austin Frakt and health policy analyst Elsa Pearson’s December 31st New York Times’ piece “How Cutting Food Stamps Can Add Costs Elsewhere.

Frakt and Pearson’s research-based argument: a new US Department of Agriculture rule on food stamp work requirements that could take food stamps away from almost 700,000 Americans might actually increase federal expenditures instead of saving money as intended. That’s because heightened food insecurity can degrade people’s health, leading to increased health costs for these recipients and their children. And since they can’t pay for those expenses, we all have to.

Frakt and Pearson don’t just make this argument from data and previous research. They reach out for quotes — from a food bank official talking about how food stamp recipients don’t earn enough even when working two jobs to meet basic food needs; and from a doctor and professor of medicine on how removing food stamp benefits will undercut recipients whose employment is seasonal.

The bulk of “How Cutting Food Stamps Can Cost Elsewhere” is Frakt and Pearson’s authoritative walk through the literature. And they’re good writers. But their direct authority quotes bring a fresh dimension of immediacy and the credibility of lived experience into what might otherwise feel like a forced march. They make these authorities’ argument that much more authoritative.

Takeaway: Authority quotes are especially useful when your authority content verges on literature review. Reach out for quotes from other authorities and specialists whose perspectives can help you make your argument, but who are also clearly not your sock puppet. The quoted should bring something unique to the table: more lived experience with your content’s topic; a different disciplinary perspective; perhaps a personal perspective to a study of theirs that you’re citing.

Authority quotes have a subtle but comprehensive effect on content — like yeast in dough. You notice them only when they’re absent and the final product has failed to rise.